A much anticipated event in the gig calendar, Björk returned to Scotland for the first time in twelve years, playing the cavernous SSE Hydro. Her two-hour Cornucopia show is an immersive theatrical production based around her last album, Utopia; it’s her best album in years in my opinion, but its very particular and all-enveloping sound-world has apparently been a little too dense for some fans to penetrate – no worry, Björk is here to pull us in by our ears and eyes with her most ambitious stage show to date. For early arrivals, the auditorium is filled with the relaxing jungle insect and bird sounds that proliferate through the album, before the concert begins with the 17-strong Hamrahlíð Choir from Iceland, led by Þorgerður Ingólfsdóttir, its conductor for some fifty years. Amongst other things, they perform a deeply-moving Vísur Vatnsenda-Rósu, a traditional song which Björk herself recorded with the late Hector Zazou, and may well have learnt whilst a member of the same choir. Their set is dramatic, emotive and fun, and establishes a feeling of community and warmth, no small feat in such a large space.
Then Björk herself takes the stage, the performers initially obscured by the projection-splashed front curtains, which gradually draw back to reveal a fantastical set with mushroom-like platforms, Björk dressed resplendently as a white space moth. To the right is what looks like a small elven summer house/observatory, designed to give a specific small-room reverb sound on-stage, into which Björk and other performers will occasionally go to deliver parts (she sings an unaccompanied Show Me Forgiveness entirely from within it). The set draws largely from Utopia, a record not short on highlights. The Gate is still as astounding as on first hearing, and is followed by Utopia‘s title-track and Arisen My Senses to create a strong opening, with other sympathetic songs from across her career then pulled into its sonic biosphere (tonight populated by the choir, seven flutes, harp, drums, percussion and electronics). So we get to hear a wonderful Venus As A Boy reborn as a Utopia fantasia, Björk’s ever-dynamic vocal carrying all of the melodic weight as it soars against an understated and gossamer-thin backing. We’re also treated to Isobel, with fresh new Arca beats, which sends hearts soaring with its epic moth-centering chorus, and sees the flute players dancing atop their fungus platforms as if they’ve been told to imagine they’re in a ’90s euro-dance video – it’s absolutely joyous.
Multiple layers of projected visuals, with an organic tone, at times create a 3D feel – it’s particularly successful during Claimstaker, where it feels like we’re being sucked into a woody vortex. Add in incredible costumes, hand drums in a water tank, and dramatic flute battles, and the gig at times nears sensory overload; an overwhelming audio-visual spectacle, to the point of disorientation as songs shift and merge in the memory. This synergy of sound, vision and experience reaches its peak during Body Memory, which is based around a sinus-rattling fluctuating bass tone so extreme that I initially need to block my ears, and finally feel like my nose might explode. Its source is unclear, but two absolutely massive metal cylinders, apparently with speakers on their ends, have descended from the ceiling at the right of the arena, looking suspiciously like recommissioned Cold War-era sonic weapons. It’s nice to think this might be a tribute to Mika Vainio of Pan Sonic, a musician beloved of Björk and famously interested in frequencies that might activate an audience’s bowels. It seems that Björk is attempting to mess with our own body memories, applying epigenetic trauma with bass, or at least rudely awakening us to our own internal vibrations. During the same song, a large metal ring descends from the heavens to settle around her, before, as four players put their lips to it, it’s revealed to be a circular flute; a metal ouroboros animated by human breath – a poetic symbol of eternal death and rebirth, and just one of this show’s many playful moments of surprise and wonder.
Vespertine, arguably a sibling to Utopia in the strong unifying detail of its sonic environment, is also well-represented, with a fantastic Hidden Place performed a cappella by Björk and the full choir – she leaves the slightly exaggerated cadence of the original vocal recording behind, delivering a more powerful and direct take that feels less introspective. This also adds a note of melancholy which is balanced exquisitely by the audible joy in the voices of the choir as they tackle the intricate backing parts, voices swooping and rising like birds. A shortened but beautiful Pagan Poetry later segues into Utopia‘s climactic triptych and the high point of the concert: as on the record, Losss manages to balance a strikingly profound melancholia with hard-won positivity to create a deeply affecting sonic simile of acceptance and growth; it’s followed by the transcendent fury of Sue Me, probably the song I was most excited to hear at this gig – it’s an emotional and musical double-punch to the gut and the heart, then followed by the exhausted hug of the mournful-yet-hopeful Tabula Rasa. The performers having left the stage, Björk’s lyrical exhortations to not repeat “the f**k-ups of the fathers” then lead fittingly into a video message from Greta Thunberg, her call for audience members to consider their children’s futures by acting on climate change echoing and broadening Björk’s more personal lyrical call for a better future for her family. Taken altogether it’s very powerful stuff, delivered with a defiant optimism. If utopian thinking in art is about creating a fictional blueprint for the very real future you want, then there’s never been a better time to start making it happen. With voices like Thunberg’s and Björk’s existing in the mainstream, we’re perhaps closer than we realise.
Coming back for an encore, Björk leaves us with an emphatically-delivered Notget, entreating the seated audience to stand and dance and sing along. “It’s Monday night!” she jokes. Her plea for movement is sadly not entirely successful, but, well – we’re all stood up, and perhaps another small step towards Björk’s utopia has been taken.