Björk review – a spectacular vision of Utopia

O2 Arena, London
Writhing alien life forms engulf a set so elaborate it reduces the audience at the singer’s Cornucopia arena show to hushed awe. But her voice rings out clear

When Björk first conceived of the live show for her ninth studio album, 2017’s lush Utopia, she envisioned something “a little bit Pollyanna”. Having cut short the tour for the preceding Vulnicura album owing to the emotional weight of its dense break-up songs, this was a chance to create a new world, one bathed in light. Cornucopia has been billed by Björk as her “most elaborate staged concert to date”, which is saying something considering that 2011’s Biophilia jaunt utilised actual lightning to make beats. Her choice of arena-sized venues suggests that logistics won out over intimacy. Everything here is oversized, from the constantly shifting fringed screens that drape the stage – made up of a collection of fungi-like pods – to the crisp projections showing polymorphous alien-like flora and fauna that often engulf the 18-piece choir and the flute septet, to the dome-like reverberation chamber into which Björk occasionally disappears to sing without a microphone. That it’s predominantly soundtracked by Utopia’s birdcall-heavy art-pop makes it feel as if you’ve been shrunk and let loose in an underwater episode of Blue Planet.

It’s an unnerving experience at first, with the crowd hushed as if in a theatre, all polite applause and near silence between songs. It’s a respect that Björk – resplendent in a peach ruffled dress and gold headpiece – wallows in, unleashing that crystal clear voice on opener The Gate, before kicking and prodding at an imaginary figure on the gloopy Arisen My Senses. Her movements often seem to relate to a different song entirely, as if these sprawling, densely layered epics read as pop to her now. Even when cloaked in blossoming flowers or, as on the rumbling highlight Body Memory, surrounded by CGI bodies crashing into each other, she remains your main focus. When she loses her way during Hidden Place – one of the few songs from her pre-2015 discography – she styles it out with some trademark, wordless ad-libs, while a cute cry that “flutes rock!” is met with the night’s only real concession to arena-sized cheering.

New world … Björk and band with the show’s spectacular backdrop.
New world … Björk and band with the show’s spectacular backdrop. Photograph: Santiago Felipe

Undercutting the show’s streamlined spectacle is Björk’s anarchic spirit. Songs such as Utopia and a reworked Mouth’s Cradle feel like they might implode at any point, all zigzagging beats and fluttering flutes, while 1995’s Isobel – which almost elicits relief when it appears mid-set – starts off fairly straight before almost being upended by distorted bass. The main set closes with a run of songs that work through her messy break-up, with the self-explanatory Losss giving way to the anger of Sue Me and the fresh start of Tabula Rasa, a heartfelt plea to her daughter: “Clean plate,” she sings sweetly. “Not repeating the fuck-ups of the fathers.”

The failures of dominant power structures crop up again as environmental activist Greta Thunberg appears on screen to deliver a climate crisis wake-up call ahead of the encore. That it’s followed by Utopia’s crystalline closing track, the All Is Full of Love-referencing Future Forever, suggests that Björk wants to send everyone home with a glimmer of hope. It’s a fake, however. She ends with Vulnicura’s Notget, a gloriously unwieldy opus that lurches gravely around the refrain “love will keep us safe from death” and is introduced, perhaps comically, with a cheerful “let’s dance”. Perhaps full utopia is too much for even Björk to conceive.

At SSE Hydro, Glasgow, 25 November; and touring.


Michael Cragg

The GuardianTramp

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