Mutual Emotional Respect: Björk Live In London

Live in London, at a show made necessary purely by an outpouring of love, Karl Smith finds Björk delivering both a manifesto for ferocious empathy and proof that respect and mutual reciprocation is powerfully transformative. (Photographs by Santiago Felipe)

Poetry (Pagan or otherwise), for all its noble affectations, is just the artful organisation of another person’s private, wandering thoughts until they’re given to the world and retroactively given relevance by the reader. Rothko’s immense canvases, too, are just colour and paint – adeptly executed space-fillers fit for The Four Seasons – until, over years, the thickness of the paint is gradually outweighed by the sheer volume of fixated gazes that have accumulated on the surface. Entire lives absorbed, bursting at the seams with comfort, sorrow, redemption and abject loss where once there was nothing much to speak of. A thing – an object, a thought, a work of art – is just a thing, no more than the sum of its parts, until the moment it is imbued with meaning beyond the sole purpose of existing.

So it is tonight with Björk. Her performance, split into two parts, as it was three nights before at the Royal Albert Hall, accompanied by the specially assembled Aurora Orchestra led by John Harte, is spectacular. At once tender and violent, oscillating between earthly and spiritual. Above all, perhaps, it is honest and powerfully human in its refusal or its natural inability to be just one of those things.

Opening her chest, both literally and figuratively – using her arms to physically push out into a full Hammersmith Apollo every last remaining element of sound that might be daring, against her wishes, to linger behind – it would be easy, too, to dub Björk the very spirit of generosity. There can be no doubt, even from the first adamant moments of ‘Stonemilker’, that there is something profoundly unselfish about this performance – about her commitment to giving, in extremis, in this live setting in the same way that she offers herself up so absolutely on record. But, as it is with Vulnicura in its time capsule version as an album, it’s also clear that this performance will require something of its audience: not pity – no statement is a clear a rejection on that front as the refrain of “show me emotional respect” – but perhaps something a little closer to empathy and much more like self-sacrifice.

Yes, Björk is unbegrudging with us tonight but, to paraphrase Guðmundsdóttir’s own ‘Lionsong’, the performance “peaks and transforms” when we acknowledge her not, after all, as the spirit of generosity that her openness and her clear desire to give may at first suggest, but as the embodiment of reciprocity.

The strings on ‘Black Lake’, sprawling as vastly this evening as the image its title conjures, not only reverberate but seem to reach out, sonic fingers extended as fully as possible until inevitably they begin to shake, shimmering water-like and all-encompassing. It’s the perfect encapsulation of this re-working of Vulnicura and this incarnation or Björk, too: enveloping to the point at which, if unwilling to give yourself over completely in return, the struggle may prove too much – the tide may be too unyielding. In the room, we throw ourselves full-bodied into the Black Lake, even as Björk rises from it in front of our eyes, testament to how immersion will transform us.

That Vulnicura is an album born out of heartbreak and the rending of a spiritual bond is beyond doubt (“My soul torn apart, my spirit is broken”, for example, is far from opaque even if it is multi-layered) but the strength of her voice, faultless on every occasion it rises and falls and stretches out before us terraforming the emotional landscapes of which she sings, may stir compassion but its clarity (technically and psychically) and its vulnerability draw admiration foremost in every moment. “My shield is gone, my protection is taken”, she sings, but her naked unguardedness is defiant – warrior-like, even ferocious.

Emerging after the interval, both a necessary respite and half an hour thick with the kind of electric humidity that exists solely before a particularly forceful storm, ‘Aurora’ is another statement of intent – a manifesto: “I tumbled down / On my knees / Fill the mouth / With snow / The way it melts / I wish / To melt / Into you / Aurora”. The transition from the fall and the total loss of control it so acutely conveys, through humility and reinvigoration through natural power, ending in a surrender to the act of being and being present in every fleeting moment – which is nothing even remotely like giving up – is played out on stage and vicariously in the stalls and circle.

When Björk unexpectedly canceled performances last year, she rightfully suggested she had “earned enough tour karma points,” for her fans to rally around her in support rather than against her. And that idea – for those who stuck with her through what was undoubtedly a difficult period of her life – that what you put in is what is returned to you, absolutely holds true tonight. Simply: you get what you give.

As much as this night is about Vulnicura and the Björk of the present, to define ourselves without acknowledging the atoms of our past that contribute to who we are now is, at best, a naïve act. It follows, then, that it’s an unexpected appearance of Homogenic’s ‘Bachelorette’ that comes to define the night in all its weight and all its glory – all its mutual abandonment and reciprocal joy – and express just how vital it is for everyone involved. “Drink me, make me feel real / Wet your beak in the stream / Game we’re playing is life / Love is a two-way dream”.

Follow @karlthomassmith on Twitter for more

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