In a 2011 interview with Drowned in Sound, Björk compared Coldplay to a plate of sausage and chips. Her own music, she hoped, was the aural equivalent of carrot soup washed down with a bottle of tequila.
Björk has always revelled in musical extremes, in sonic juxtapositions. In her 1997 album, Homogenic, she cemented her signature sound; a disarming blend of baroque string arrangements (the carrot soup, presumably) and distorted electronic beats (definitely the tequila).
But while a diet consisting of beige, stodgy mundanity might induce—at least in Björk’s view—the kind of intellectual lethargy equivalent to a junk food binge, her own music, according to her detractors, is comparable to having your teeth drilled whilst nursing a bad hangover.
This may sound disparaging, but having been a Björk fan since the tender age of fifteen, I, like many other fans, have simply resigned myself to the fact that Björk isn’t for everyone. Trying to draw her naysayers’ attention to her merits is fruitless, since the very thing that attracts you to her music—the drastic extremes, the startling contrasts—is the very thing that drives everyone else away.
Performing here in her native Reykjavik, adorned in a deep cerulean ball gown, with what appears to be a metallic Viking helmet atop her head, she is every bit the living embodiment of her music. And while other artists might seek to organise a musical ensemble that naturally gels—guitar, bass and drums is the standard for a reason—Björk instead opts for a large Icelandic choir to do the work of her arrangements, an accordionist, a pipe organ, and live beat programmer.
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Far be it from Björk to settle for a greatest hits setlist, she instead draws from her deeply polarising 2004 effort, Medulla. Even in the more accessible moments, I am reminded of Björk’s propensity to challenge the listener, and of her desire to push the emotions at the heart of her songs to breaking point, where positive sentiments become their natural opposites. Even her most plaintive, tender love songs are hooded with a sense of danger.
On this night, this is no more apparent than in her performance of fan favourite, Hidden Place, a song with the deceptively innocuous theme of early- relationship longing. The interlocking, percussive harmonies of the 20-piece choir gives the song a fractious, ominous edge and makes Björk’s lyric, “We’ll go to a hidden place/we’ll be in our hidden place,” seem more like a threat than a lovelorn promise.
Elsewhere, in Medulla stand out track, Who Is It, she pairs a sunny, tropical melody that even Madonna wouldn’t refuse with a frenetic beat that Aphex Twin would be proud of.
Sure, this classically trained Icelandic songstress can write a catchy melody; she might even write you a chorus – if she feels like it. But more often than not, she structures her songs in the fashion of traditional hymns and elegies. Her songs resolve in refrains and mantras as opposed to choruses. In the fan favourite, Unravel, performed here with accordion accompaniment, Björk sings a melody that wouldn’t seem too out of place in a sixteenth century madrigal, perhaps in a deserted Icelandic church by candlelight.
This, of all Björk’s dichotomies, is perhaps the most interesting. Despite her propulsive modernity and her staunch atheism, she has always had a taste for church music. Björk doesn’t like things to gel, and while this can certainly be off-putting for new listeners, it would be wrong to characterise this approach as the wilful obtuseness of a po-faced artiste.
Like hymns, her songs seek to inspire a sense of awe and wonder, to destabilise and overwhelm the listener. She doesn’t want her songs to be a soundtrack to your work meeting at Starbucks. She wants all of your attention. Her die-hard fans are almost religious in their zeal, and it’s not uncommon for them to burst into tears during her performances.
This is no more apparent than in tonight’s performance of Cosmogony, perhaps the closest any contemporary musician has ever come to writing a secular song of worship, a kind of paean to the wonder of the universe and the creation myths that we construct to make sense of it, “Heaven/Heaven’s bodies/swirl around me/a dance eternal,” she roars in the song’s chorus, and for a few seconds after the song concludes, the audience are utterly silent. There’s a palpable sense of breathless wonder in the auditorium.
This restless urge to destabilise occurs sonically in her performance of Where Is the Line, where the monstrous beat seems to drill away at the choir’s histrionic, agonised wailing. Like some frantic fairground ride in which the screws and bolts rattle and clang precariously in their sockets, Björk’s most experimental efforts seem to be always on the verge of crashing into dissolution; often, in fact, they seem determined to fall apart.
Björk has often been praised for her deconstructive sense of composition. And while this produces exhilarating results at the best of times; at worst, it can leave the listener with nothing but empty air. In tonight’s performance of Mouth’s Cradle, a fiendishly difficult song that sounds great in its studio form, even Björk loses her place among the chaos, jumping into the chorus too early and lagging behind in the verses.
Still, to the seasoned Björk fan, none of this is anything new. And if you’re not on board with her by now, her latest output won’t do anything to change your mind. For better or worse, she has only doubled down on her idiosyncrasies. In 1996, she opted to promote her album, Post,by touring with a pipe organ and accordionist (she has a thing for accordions and organs, it seems). Her record label thought she was mad—they were right—and yet in that same year she won the Brit award for Best International Female.
With all her idiosyncrasies, its seems absolutely unfathomable that Björk was considered a bona fide pop star throughout the ’90s, hanging out with the likes of Take That and Oasis. Sure, in 2021 Harry Styles might wear a dress on the cover of Vogue, but it’s unlikely he’d brave the kind of career-suicide-threatening boundaries that Björk made her career on.
I came away from this live-stream asking myself this question: where have the edgy pop stars gone? And then, with an air of solemn relief, thank goodness we still have Björk.
Bjork will be performing another matinee concerts on November 15. The event will be live streamed on the Dice platform, with tickets priced at £15, with 20% of proceeds going towards women’s migrant charities in Iceland.
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