Dressed in white, a swan's head draped over her shoulder, Bjork Gudmundsdottir sat on the stage of the Civic Opera House on Sunday and serenaded a capacity audience with "Frosti," a wordless lullaby played on a children's music box. It was a bravura exercise in mood-setting by the 34-year-old Icelandic singer, whose reputation for creating otherworldly avant-pop music has flourished over five increasingly mesmerizing solo albums in the last decade.
The performance was feverishly anticipated; one of only a half-dozen North American dates, Sunday's show sold out 3,500 tickets in 10 minutes. It was an indication of the stature Bjork has attained, not by catering to mainstream tastes, but by challenging them. She was among the first pop artists to embrace electronic dance music, and her search for new sounds continues; opening act Matmos flirted with goofiness, rubbing and blowing on balloons to add another rhythmic element to their ping-ponging computer beats. But the true source of Bjork's burgeoning popularity is the emotional openness of her spectacular voice, a huge instrument that belies her diminutive stature.
When that voice was in its glorygrowling on "Human Behavior," declaring her love with unabashed glee on "Pagan Poetry," going toe-to-toe with an orchestra and holding her ground on "Joga"she was a tiny miracle of moxie and wonder. Even in her lesser moments, the fragile latticework of her recent music destroyed by overly harsh sound experiments, she was never anything less than herself, the least self-conscious of divas.
Though she frequently traffics in outrageous otherworldliness, this show was more about Bjork's private inner-world. She strived to create a theater of intimacy, whispering in the listeners' ears, especially during the deep-breathing passages of "Cocoon." The illusion was created even though the singer was backed by one of the most elaborate supporting casts in recent pop-concert history: a 54-piece orchestra, an 11-member choir, a synthesizer duo and harpist Zeena Parkins.
The evening was split into two distinct sections, the first devoted primarily to the songs and spirit of Bjork's latest album, "Vespertine." The music was bathed in treble, the tinny, shimmering sounds in the upper range of the sound spectrum: the celestial cascade of Parkins' harp, the fairy-tale twinkle of the music box, the swoop and swoon of the orchestra's string section. Even Matmos' rhythms suggested a dreamy free-fall; the beats did not so much drive the music as sputter, click and purr on its fringes, molecules adrift in a gravity-free environment.
Bjork approached her performance more like an actress than a typical rock or pop singer; initially, she barely acknowledged her audience or her fellow music-makers. But her demeanor didn't have the cold remove of another singer-actress-performance artist with a penchant for elaborate visual concepts: Madonna. Instead of keeping the listeners at arm's length, Bjork's more-is-less strategy pulled them closer. As Bjork beckoned, "We go to that hidden place."
Yet the songs never settled for mere prettiness. Even in its most hushed state, her music brimmed with an unsettling sense of anxiety and anticipation. Her voice floated beautifully in the open spaces, but occasionally found itself overwhelmed in the more densely arranged moments. She fought back on "Joga," her voice no longer delicate but agitated, reveling in her "state of emergency."
The second half amplified this anxiety, literally and figuratively, the look and tone becoming more strident. The oracle of interior stillness who dominated Act 1 was a more animated performer, dancing and prowling. Now she was the shabby angel who had fallen to Earth, wearing the scarlet dress of a predator, adorned with feathers and glass that tinkled as she moved. She looked ridiculous and wondrous: a shimmying belly dancer, a barefoot ballerina, a weathered Atlantic City showgirl, a sea urchin.
The Matmos beats hardened, and the soft contours of the earlier ballads developed some edges. "Hyper-ballad" chugged toward the dance floor, and "Army of Me" rode a thick groove while Parkins' electronic harp found an eerie middle ground between the sound of a sitar and a whining slide guitar. Even the somewhat staid-looking choir, from Greenland, found itself grooving, Temptations style. The closing song, an unreleased uptempo track built on joyous hand-clap rhythms, asked, "Aren't we scaring ourselves ... aren't we trying too hard?" Though carefully sculpted, Bjork's music never sounds overthought. Especially when she raises a tiny fist and lets that voice fly, as if calling down some more angels.