Arriving onstage in a flowing white dress and her well-worn mask with needles covering her face, Björk started with the first six songs of Vulnicura, stomping around the stage in white platforms and carrying the weight of her words on her slender shoulders. The nine-song Vulnicura is Björk's furthest stray from traditional pop music -- albums like Medúlla and Biophilia might have been based around more idiosyncratic concepts, but still contained grounded song structures and detectable choruses. Vulnicura's songs often stretch past the six-minute mark and shrug off melodic hooks, and while that may make for an occasionally frustrating listen on headphones, these tracks beautifully expand when performed live. The sweep of the violins, crackling electronic beats and Björk's ascending vocals made a song like the scalding, 10-minute "Black Lake" gain a new vibrancy, blossoming into a hopeless relationship dirge that no one in the audience wanted to end.
Part of the reason that the Vulnicura songs worked so well is due to the "animated notation" of each track by Stephen Malinowski, projected onto the back of the Carnegie stage behind Björk and her musicians. The eight songs from the new album that were performed ("Atom Dance" was the only song not played, perhaps because Antony Hegarty was not available for its backing vocals) were accompanied by subtitled lyrics, so that the audience could follow along with each of Björk's pained sentiments; even more impressive, each song's musical progression was mapped out into a sort of animated sheet music projected in time with the performance. Each string movement, for example, was imagined as a neon spiral unfurling to a logical conclusion, and each beat was a hollow circle designed to reverberate. The animated display was a soothing supplement to the performance, as if visually rendering the notes made them all the more digestible.
Bjork's Rush-Released Album Debuts in Top 20 on Billboard 200
When Björk returned from an intermission in a purple asymmetric dress and started diving into some past career highlights -- "Undo" from Vespertine, "Pleasure Is All Mine" from Medúlla -- the audience cheered the older songs, although the show curiously slowed down, as if its concept of an all-Vulnicura set had been shrilled halfway through so the show could be more crowd-pleasing. Fortunately, Björk eventually came back to "Quicksand" and "Mouth Mantra" from her new album to close out the proper set, and at the end of the latter, the enigmatic singer struck a superhero pose at the top of the stage while delivering the line, "With jaw fallen in/In fallen jaw/Jaw fallen in/I am not hurt." Spontaneous applause erupted mid-song, and Björk very nearly giggled before regaining her composure.
Björk has not been shy about the personal woes that inspired Vulnicura, and to see her declare "I am not hurt" to a sold-out audience made for a truly inspiring moment. Museum exhibits are one thing; seeing Björk in concert is something else entirely. And her Vulnicura run, which will continue in New York City throughout March, is one not to be missed.
Here is the set list from Björk's March 7 performance at Carnegie Hall:
History of Touches
Pleasure Is All Mine
Come To Me
I See Who You Are
Harm of Will