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Ben Cardew , July 28th, 2015 12:05

Ben Cardew reports from Björk's recent gig at Poble Espanyol in Barcelona, performing from this year's "viscerally dark" Vulnicura

Photo by Francesc Fabregas

It is a balmy summer's night in Barcelona and as the city relaxes into its August lay-off I'm headed to an open-air architectural museum in the hills, preparing to listen to a singer describe the break up of her family. Admittedly this is a slightly one-dimensional way of seeing Björk's heart-rending ninth studio album Vulnicura, an anvil-black portrayal of her break-up with artist Matthew Barney. But ever since the album was released in January, a question mark has remained as to how exactly Björk would carry off a tour on the back something so viscerally dark.

It's not just that Vulnicura is bleak - "Is there a place / Where I can pay respects / For the death of my family?" asks album track 'Family'. It is also complex and largely free of the kind of beats that would make you shuffle around contentedly on a Friday night out. Pitchfork raised the issue of how to take Vulnicura live with Björk back in January. "I have no idea," she said. "It'll be emotional. I'm just going to have to cry and be a mess and do it."

Emotional, this concert certainly is. But it is anything but a mess, combining a very precise musical mixture of strings, percussion and electronics with a touch of theatricality and little in the way of obviously crowd-pleasing. The strings come first, a 15-piece, white-clad string section making their way onto the stage as dusk falls, followed by producer Arca and percussionist Manu Delago. The sound they make is both lush - all swooping, classic ambience - and minimal, the sparse electronics and percussion leaving space for Björk's peerless voice to roam.

Their live set up also closely mirrors the spartan beats-and-string sound of Vulnicura, whose opening tracks - 'Stonemilker' and 'Lionsong' - are the first two tracks played tonight. The former is a moment of pop catharsis, with exquisite string lines floating in a crystalline sound mix, the latter a dual between vocal and strings over a hiccuping groove. Björk herself is wearing a mask that, from 15 rows back, makes her look like a deep-sea-dwelling crustacean and celebrates 'Stonemilker' by breaking into an oddly stiff-legged walk, like a stringed puppet.

It's a bold opening. What happens next, though, is even stronger, confirming the suspicion that Björk is not the slightest bit concerned with taking the easy route. 'Lionsong' gives way to 'Black Lake', the dark, beating heart of Vulnicura. The first two minutes of the song are beatless and sparse, just vocals and touches of strings so feather light you can hear the sea breeze blow across the Poble Espanyol; the song slowly builds into a pagan electronic stomp, more animated live than on record, Björk stamping her leg in time to the drums, before dissolving back into violins and ending on a single, drawn-out note. It is a song that doesn't so much change the pace of the concert as redefine it completely, Björk pulling the audience through by sheer force of personality.

'Black Lake' is followed by three more Vulnicura songs: the ambient, shape-shifting 'History Of Touches'; 'Family', with its harrowing shifts from light to dark that are offset by the fact you can't really hear the words; and 'Notget', a gothic march of a song live, which marries plucked strings to martial drums, punctuated by a rhythmic firework display. It is only now, after six straight songs form Vulnicura, that Björk delves into her recorded history, pulling out 'Come To Me' from 1993 album Debut. But it too has been Vulnicura-ised and deconstructed, the original song's swinging hip hop drums replaced by a slow, oozing beat and injected with sternum-rattling bass.

There follows a selection of older songs. But rather than rolling out the greatest hits, these seem to have been selected to complement the narrative of Vulnicura, conveying a story in a way that is almost operatic.

And so, in Barcelona, Vulnicura's tales of family break up are augmented by 'Pleasure Is All Mine', a song about breastfeeding Isadora, Björk's daughter with Matthew Barney; 'I See Who You Are', also said to be about Isadora; and 'Harm Of Will' from Vespertine, an album of string-led romanticism to which Vulnicurais considered a dark companion piece. The latter track in particular is stunning live, a beatless torch song of emotional elegance that Björk infuses with incredible drama.

From there, Björk ups the pace in a final stretch of glorious, beat-driven release. 'Quicksand', Vulnicura's closing track, rides a skittering, insect beat, half man, half machine; 'Wanderlust', a triumphant, robo R&B highlight of 2007 album Volta, inspires widespread dancing as the tension eases; and Vulnicura's 'Mouth Mantra' sees blood-red fireworks explode across the sky as the string section carves out gothic chords.

The best is yet to come, however. After closing with 'Mutual Core', the only song from previous album Biophilia to feature on this tour, Björk returns for an encore of One Day. It is one of her most loved songs but she breaks it down, remaking it in a skeletal, drums-plus-vocals guise accompanied by percussionist Delgado, a model that makes the song's beautiful, hopeful melody ring all the sweeter.

"One day," the song goes, "it will all make sense. One day, you will blossom." It's a fitting end, optimistic at last, the light after the Scandinavian dark of Vulnicura, bringing the evening to a moving conclusion.