at the Civic Opera House, October 14
We're all less self-conscious when we're home alone: daydreaming, listening to records, singing, dancing around all spastic with no one to watch us make fools of ourselves. That's the idea at the heart of Bjork's new album, Vespertine, a gorgeous dreamscape of meandering melodies and romantic fantasies that she wrote on a laptop last year in a mountain hut in her native Iceland. Although the album features lush, ambitious arrangements that meticulously balance orchestration and electronics, it's incredibly intimate, a pristine glance into a private world of Bjork's imagining.
The intimacy comes not just from the lyrics, though they are quite personal--some poetically so ("Every time I lose my voice / I swallow little glowing lights") and some rather prosaically ("He slides inside / Half awake, half asleep / We faint back into sleephood"). What makes them stick is the way Bjork's singular voice fits into the instrumentation.
She's juxtaposed pretty trad stuff and abrasive electronics in the past, on beat-driven efforts like Post and Homogenic, but only on Vespertine does the marriage seem perfect. Set against Vince Mendoza's sweeping, elegant orchestral arrangements and a heavenly choir, each pluck of Zeena Parkins's harp and each spiky note of the delicate melodies Bjork wrote specifically for music box sparkles like a gem. Layers of electronics--contributed by imaginative collaborators like the San Francisco duo Matmos, British producer Matthew Herbert, and Danish producer Thomas Knak--throb, slither, crunch, and spark rather than beat, beat, beat. They're almost always muffled, never truly percussive, as if played under a pillow; at one point a sample of the shuffling of playing cards functions as a rhythmic motif. Somehow, amid all these noises Bjork finds room to sing a series of indelible but not necessarily catchy melodies--oddly shaped phrases, curlicues, and childlike cries. On many of the songs she doesn't need to raise her voice above a whisper; she sings the sexy "Cocoon" as though her lover were still in "sleephood" in the next room.
It's one thing to sing quietly in front of an orchestra on record; it's quite another to reproduce that complexity onstage. Bjork's not the first to address this challenge: in the rock era the album has rarely functioned exclusively as a document of an artist's live performances. Straining for perfection in the studio often saps bands of the energy they generate when they play live; others whose music is more suited to the studio struggle to reproduce it in packed clubs. Some artists have gotten around the dilemma by not even trying to do the same thing live and in the studio: the Beatles never re-created Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, and modern acts like Tortoise and Stereolab often have to rearrange their computer-aided compositions for the stage.
In support of Post, Bjork toured with a DJ, an accordion player, and a drummer, while the live shows in support of Homogenic paired knob twirler Mark Bell and an eight-piece string section. But those efforts seem absolutely modest compared to what she brought to town last Sunday. Hidden in the pit was a full symphonic orchestra, while onstage the singer was flanked by Matmos, Parkins, and an 11-voice choir of Inuit women from Greenland. Parkins contributed some accordion, harmonium, and celeste as well as harp. Under a lesser mistress such an assemblage might well collapse under its own weight, and it's to Bjork's credit that most elements in the dense mix retained their radiant clarity. Unfortunately, the one element that suffered, at least on the songs from Vespertine, was Bjork's voice.
It was inevitable that some intimacy would be sacrificed in front of 3,000 people, but Bjork certainly tried to find ways to express it. The performance was split into halves. The first focused on material from Vespertine, and the glacial backdrops and Bjork's absurdist white feathered dress, the neck of which extended into a swan's head, seemed to allude to the retreat where the album was conceived. She opened the concert alone, turning the crank on a music box that unfurled the dreamy melody of "Frosti." As her support musicians came onstage the orchestra performed the overture from Dancer in the Dark, the Lars von Trier film that Bjork starred in last year. Bjork was in good voice, but on songs like "Cocoon" the breathy closeness of the recorded version was supplanted by her usual forceful style, and the magical love she described suddenly sounded less special. During the first set, only on "Joga," from Homogenic, did her outsize voice seem wholly appropriate.
For the second set she returned in another deliberately silly dress that exploded from her waist in red plumage, and the backdrops switched to illustrations of crustaceans. It was a more earthy set, with less emphasis on spectral orchestration and more on groove, and Matmos cranked up the heat without returning to the beat--in fact, the lone, brief moment of house beats on "Hyper-Ballad" caused the crowd to erupt in a sudden release of applause and screams. Older songs like "Army of Me" and "Isobel" were big pop gestures to begin with, so Bjork's extroverted whoops sounded more natural. The most exciting performance of the night arrived during her triumphant final encore, a new song called "Our Hands," where all of the elements coalesced around some of the evening's biggest beats and an infectious chorus of hand claps.
This dynamic performance suggested that Bjork was discovering on the spot how to harness her outlandish tools live, but it might have just been that there was no recorded blueprint for the new tune to be held up against. At any rate, it was the one moment where making music for one person and for thousands was exactly the same thing.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Barry Brecheisen.