Hyperactive human behaviour
Bjork bounces, wiggles and flaps. She sings like a gymnast, dances like a pencil. What's she after? Nick Coleman went to Sheffield Arena to find out
Friday 26 January 1996
On the bus back into town, a couple in their thirties discussed their evening.
"I can tell," said the woman knowingly, not unkindly. "You didn't really like it, did you?"
"No... ye-e-es... well, it was all right," he agonised. "I like her. I liked it. I just didn't know all the songs, and the ones I did know were different. It wasn't exactly classic, though, was it? I mean, not classic."
Bjork divides pop consumers unevenly and inconclusively. You get the sense that there are as many shades of feeling about her as there are categories of pop taste; probably more. And people seem to enjoy the confusion. In pop, where knowing what you like is nine-tenths of the law, she stands for delight in irresolution; which is another way of saying that Bjork, against all the rules of pop star/audience engagement, permits her audience to be spontaneous.
She materialised rather off-handedly towards the end of the Brodsky Quartet's support set and joined in. They did "Hyper-ballad" together with much sawing of limbs and bows, anchored like a hydra in a blue-white spot.
"Hyper-ballad" is an extraordinary song about uncertainty, cliffs and household rubbish, set early in the morning. You can't sing it by doing the emotions, like Janis Joplin, say, because there are no emotions in the song (which is not to say that the song has no emotional impact); nor by interpreting it sensitively with your elbows in and whiskers out, like a proper singer-songwriter, because there is nothing in the song to be interpreted as such. The song expresses abstract feelings by describing exterior phenomena in narrative suspension from their familiar contexts; more like a surrealist painting than a song, in fact. What Bjork did was sing "Hyper-ballad" in recitative style, pressing her voice up hard against the Brodskys' chuntering beat, snapping from interval to interval like a gymnast on parallel bars. It was a brilliant exhibition executed with thrilling, stark accuracy. When she said "sank yoo" at the end, large numbers of people giggled.
From the earliest stages, then, this was a recital, not a pop concert. As the string quartet dispersed into the wings, Bjork herself hung to one side, knuckle to chin, while the stage undressed to reveal a sort of techno-organic play park, decorated with mummified trees, speakers on stalks and tubular coils where you'd expect to see amplifiers - the set for a post-apocalyptic Magic Roundabout in which Florence takes her shoes off and Zebedee plays electric marimba.
A tiny handful of musicians fringed the space, including a lady accordionist on a chair who played infrequently but smiled a lot. The instrumentation in turn fringed Bjork, who bounced up and down her stage promontory, flapping incontinently. She did "Isobel", "Army of Me", "Human Behaviour", "Venus As a Boy", "Enjoy" in various states of restrained musical motley, low- frequency bass rumbling in phase from speakers sited in all four corners of the arena, harpsichord arpeggios rippling in sonic correspondence with Bjork's fingers, which splayed and wiggled as pathologically as a one- year-old's. "I'm so impa-tient ...When do I get my cud-dle?" she sang in "I Miss You" with startling passion.
The entire show is carried visually by Bjork's ability to show off. Nothing happens at all otherwise. And given that all she does is stick her belly out and charge around acting the goat, then it's remarkable that what comes over is a clear exposition of major themes: being cuddled, feeling safe, having space to call your own, having the freedom to imagine that your own space can stand for the whole world - themes animated with such clarity that at points it seemed reasonable to suppose that the entire arena was happily considering what it must be like to have a small daughter, or even what it must be like to be a small daughter.
The show climaxed with "Violently Happy", a pell-mell techno-hymn in which Bjork formed a stubby pencil shape and bounced herself silly, and "It's Oh So Quiet", which was shrill and done without horns, so it didn't swing. The entire assembly still contrived gleefully to go "shhh" at the end, however.
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