Whether acting in Lars von Trier's Dancer in the Dark or wearing dresses that even Vivienne Westwood might consider outré, Björk Gudmundsdottir has never done things by halves. If such gung-ho individualism has often meant less column-inches about her music, with new album Vespertine, the Icelandic innovator looks set to re-establish herself as the most interesting pop chanteuse de nos jours.
She's described Vespertine as an attempt to create both "a paradise" and "a cocoon" and, with its themes of privacy, solitude, and quiet reverence in the face of the everyday, the album does establish its own little universe. Utilising music boxes, harp, and the "micro-rhythms" of San Francisco's electronica duo, Matmos, Vespertine is also an oddly touching work.
France has always been a key territory for Björk, and this ornate old theatre was a fitting place for her to air the new material live.There was a rare sense of occasion. We'd heard that as well as Matmos and harpist Zeena Parkins, Björk was to be joined by a full orchestra and an all-female Innuit choir who, thus far, hadn't travelled outside Greenland.
Initially, Björk sat centre-stage alone. On her lap was a glass music box whose ghostly chimes immediately created an intimate, dream-like atmosphere on "Frosti". Further in, "Aurora", found Martin Schmidt of Matmos treading a cat-litter tray to recreate the sound of snow compacting underfoot, a glacial landscape projected on the screen behind him, and Parkins' harp sounding as crisp as snapped icicles.
Where Björk's voice is concerned, "marvellous" is the only adjective that will do. She seems to approach singing like a track and field event, stamping feet and swinging arms to add weight and momentum to the gorgeous, guttural braying which characterises her lower range at full pelt. Tonight, this was particularly impressive on "Pagan Poetry", a gob-smackingly emotional song in which Björk's amour for her new artist boyfriend Matthew Barney is completely transparent. When it broke down to the repeated phrase "I love him" and the Innuit choir added its counterpoint, your correspondent's goose bumps weren't so much raised as run up the flagpole.
Björk's dresses, too, were little events in themselves. During the second half of a set which included such crowd-pleasers as "Human Behaviour", "Possibly Maybe" and "Hyperballad", she wore an amazing Alexander McQueen creation. Its top half consisted of interwoven tiles of coloured glass whose clinking added surreptitious percussion. Its bottom half was a vast, tented mass of red feathers, some of which littered the stage after our hostess decided to dance a barefoot hula-hula to "Venus as a Boy."
If part of Björk is still a wide-eyed child playing dressing-up games, what tonight's performance further underlined is her ability to create intoxicating, challenging music which evokes adult emotional life in all its complexity. During "Cocoon", there was a magical moment where, seemingly overcome with the strange beauty of it all, one of the Innuit women rested her happy-sad head on the shoulder of her companion in a way that was disarmingly unaffected. Call me a big girl's blouse, but I knew exactly how she felt.
St Johns Smith Square, London SW1 (020 7222 1061), Wednesday
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