Review: Björk brought strings — but no beats — to her sold-out gig at Disney Hall
Björk didn’t need to open her mouth to inspire wild cheers of devotion — and at least one shout of “I love you!” — from the capacity crowd gathered to see her perform Tuesday night at Walt Disney Concert Hall.
Walking onstage wearing an elaborate face mask and a gown that looked to be made of vinyl and tulle, the beloved Icelandic vocalist received what might’ve been the rowdiest welcome ever witnessed in this stately downtown venue.
Once she started singing, though, the place instantly quieted — so much so that her platform boots could be heard shuffling across the stage.
The contrasting reactions suited an artist as drawn to extremes as Björk, who found unlikely pop success in the mid-1990s before turning to increasingly esoteric work like 2004’s mostly a cappella “Medúlla” album and “Biophilia,” a nature-themed 2011 package of songs and apps.
For Tuesday’s show, which Björk said would be her final concert behind 2015’s “Vulnicura,” the singer was accompanied by an orchestra of 32 string players; the idea was a reframing of her music minus the thumping club beats and weird electronic sounds she’s used for decades (including on “Vulnicura,” which examines the end of her long romantic relationship with the artist Matthew Barney).
Yet there was no mistaking the performance for some kind of denouncement of the digital age.
For one thing, the gig happened in connection with a multimedia exhibition, housed through Sunday at the nearby Reef event space, of virtual-reality video art set to songs from “Vulnicura”; for another, Björk will be back in Los Angeles in July for a headlining set at FYF Fest that she’s said will feature the electronic musician Arca.
So it was clear this version of the singer wasn’t meant to supplant some earlier version. Club-kid Björk was still out there, you understood, as were show-tune Björk and torch-song Björk and experimental-noise-terrorist Björk — a reassuring prospect at a moment when many artists, especially female ones, are encouraged toward simplified presentations easily captured on social media.
Then again, maybe the knowledge of those other Björks worked against the woman doing her thing at Disney Hall.
Though she’s effective in even the most limited setting, the singer is at her best when she’s drawing on the breadth of her skills and interests, as on her classic 1995 album “Post,” which sets her one-of-a-kind voice against all manner of arrangements, from house to hip-hop to old-fashioned movie-musical pop.
Here she kept adjusting her vocal delivery to reflect the infinite emotion in her music: heartbreak in “History of Touches” and worry over having disrupted her child’s home life in “Family,” both from “Vulnicura”; wide-eyed bewilderment in “I’ve Seen It All” and “Joga”; the tension between lust and love in “Bachelorette,” with its vision of “a fountain of blood in the shape of a girl.”
Physically, too, she was powerfully expressive, stretching her head back or jutting out her arms to put across feelings that otherwise would’ve remained hidden behind that mask.
Yet the orchestra’s backing made the songs seem woefully similar, with far less range of sensation than they actually contain; all those sawing strings had a flattening effect that grew only more pronounced as the concert wore on.
By the end of the night, as she sang “Pluto” — one of her most thrillingly aggressive club tracks as rendered on her album “Homogenic” — you couldn’t help but wonder where rave-warrior Björk was, and if she might make an appearance.
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