When a musician inspires a certain level of devotion, the standard response from critics goes like this : “Artist X could play her greatest hits on xylophone and penny whistle, with backing vocals from a herd of Fresians, and the fans would still love it.” But only in the case of Björk is there any likelihood of this hypothesis being tested. As anyone who has ever seen her in concert will know, her live arrangements never have more than a passing resemblance to those on the records. The big-band extravaganza of “It’s Oh So Quiet” on castanets ? “Venus as a Boy” on wooden spoon and kettle ? Why not ?
So Wednesday’s show at the Shepherd’s Bush Empire was somewhat unnerving. Björk has summed up her latest album, Homogenic (One Little Indian), as “beats, voice and strings”, and yet, behind her sat what looked suspiciously like a string octet, and separated from them by a perspex screen was Mark Bell, whose job was to trigger his spitting, spluttering, crackling beats. Add Björk’s peerless vocals to the equation and you have what can only be described as beats, voice and strings. Just like on the album. This made for one of Björk’s most accessible concerts in recent years, but also one of her most disappointing.
This judgement should be understood only in the context of Björk’s stratospheric standards : any sensible discussion of her work has to begin with the premise that she is arguably the most important individual in contemporary pop. There is no one else who has that incredible, atomic voice. There is no one else who could match such a voice with a fiercely individual personality, or who could take their music to uncharted territories, while never straying far from heartfelt lyrics and beautiful, chartbound melodies.
On her worst day Björk is a mesmeric performer, bursting with ideas and radiating her own hyperactivechild charisma. Of course, it doesn’t do her any harm that she is one of the decade’s most striking and influential fashion icons : in the next few months, watch out for clubbers wearing skirts under pink dresses that are backless from the waist down, and expect elaborate hairdos to be replaced by just-got-out-theshower flops.
But being a genius is hard work, and on Wednesday Björk seemed in need of a good night’s rest. Again, this is true only when measured on a Björkian scale. She is still more mobile than all four members of Cast fired out of a cannon, and it does seem cruel to call her subdued after she yelled her head off at the end of “Pluto”, while Bell made gunshots and cracking ice explode around her. But instead of scurrying across the stage like a frightened mouse, as is her wont, Björk confined her movements to some riding-alongon- the-crest-of-a-wave hand-jiving, and a few hops, skips and jumps. She didn’t play “It’s Oh So Quiet”.
Maybe she scaled down her movements to fit the venue, which was much smaller than those she filled on her last tour. This being the case, there was a surprising lack of connection between Björk and the audience. She sang some of her songs with a drooping head and with her eyes closed, and she didn’t say anything except the occasional “sank you”. It was up to us to peer into her world.
And on Wednesday, her world was the mermaids’ grotto in a local production of Peter Pan. Above her head were tangles of wire and swathes of polythene, and behind her were wispy streamers, lit by blue and green swirls. Any setting that evokes Peter Pan may seem appropriate, given Björk’s woman-child image, but this week it seemed that, at 31, she may be slowing down, very slightly, with age.