At multiple moments during her debut performance at Carnegie Hall on Saturday (Mar. 7), Björk appeared to be brushing away hints of moisture from her right cheek; at the end of the encore, the Icelandic musician giddily jumped up and clapped her hands while exiting the stage. The debut performance of Björk’s Vulnicura album, a devastated breakup record released in January, took the sold-out New York theater through the full gamut of emotions — and all before lunchtime, due to a 12:00 PM start time.
The matinee performance was preceded by a week of poor press reviews for the Björk career retrospective at New York’s Museum of Modern Art, which opens on Sunday (Mar. 8). But any critics disappointed by the MoMA exhibit were certainly not voicing that dissatisfaction during Saturday’s performance, in which Björk was greeted by rapturous applause at nearly every interval and an extended standing ovation when her set concluded. Backed by percussionist Manu Delago, electronics whiz Arca (who worked closely with Björk on Vulnicura) and a 15-chair string orchestra called Alarm Will Sound, Björk re-opened her personal wounds on a cold afternoon, and traded in the expansiveness of her Biophilia stage setup for something much more raw but no less distinctive.
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.
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