The Guardian

Björk review – as ambitious and inventive as ever

The Icelandic star’s electrifying voice and sense of fun transcend the conventional setting

On one side of London this week, you can venture gobbily, fleshily, into Björk’s mouth. Her virtual reality exhibition in Somerset House (a smaller version of the career retrospective shown at New York’s MoMA in 2015) immerses you vividly, and visually, in her bruisingly personal recent music, letting you spin 360 degrees, in 3D, through the place from which that famous voice comes, as well as barren seaside landscapes, and neon-lit cyborg panoramas. It’s the dictionary definition of not for everyone, but you can’t fault its ambition and invention, as you never can with Björk.

It’s therefore hard to imagine her in a conventional concert space, as she was in South Kensington on Wednesday night. The stage was set as for a Prom : a microphone alone to the front, the Aurora Orchestra black-shirted or frocked behind music stands, and their conductor, Andrew Gourlay.

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Our soloist emerges in white : a T-shirt, miniskirt and platform shoes recalling her 1990s clubby imperial phase, a UV-activated cloak and mask adding a theatrical dimension over them, as well as an extra layer of protection. This matters when the first half of the gig showcases Vulnicura Strings, Björk’s late 2015 reworking of its mother album, Vulnicura, released 10 months ago. The original detailed the breakdown of Björk’s marriage to film director Matthew Barney in real-time, with added anxious, electronics. Without them, Björk feels more exposed, the emotions more sentimental, the reach of them more universal.

Watching Björk sing these beautiful orchestral pieces feels startlingly, punishingly, direct. The fact that her voice seemingly hasn’t changed since the 1980s as she delivers her lyrics is striking – it gets more supercharged by the song, crackling with electricity. She tells the audience about how her “shield is gone” (Black Lake), and hymns “every single fuck” (History of Touches), as well as the death of her family in Family ; the last feels especially stark when she asks “how to sing us out of this sorrow ?”. In this grand, open space, Björk’s songs recall, rather strangely, the toughest emotional moments of opera, and powerfully re-render them.

The second half of the concert – her first performance in the venue in her long career – is a short spin through other parts of Björk’s career. The same strings providing a lush, whirling backdrop. They could smother the songs in this set, but Björk’s unique way with a melody – full of strange, wayward intervals and leaps – means the results are often lively and lovely.

There’s not much allowance for the hits, though : Vespertine’s Pagan Poetry (no 38 in 2001) and Homogenic’s Joga (no 191 in 1997) are probably the best-known songs. The beats that formed the backbone of her 2008 Volta and 2012 Biophilia tours are also much missed. Björk is at her best when she’s got all of her modern world with her.

As the gig moves to its climax, she starts beaming, even returning to the encore with a glass of champagne. By this point, she’s wearing a dress resembling a jellyfish – of course she is – and you’re reminded of the playfulness that has always been part of Björk’s art, and part of her unfazed lyrical approach to sex, life, death and everything else in between. She shrieks the conclusion to Pluto, beams, and scampers off ; she returns five minutes later to say thanks after her roaring fans won’t accept that she’s gone. That famous mouth smiles. Here’s to more of it.

Jude Rogers

publié dans The Guardian - 21.09.2016

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