When you have witnessed aerial flautists suspended in front of high-definition screens projecting mutating alien flora and fauna while a choir chant over industrial noise and a tiny masked woman breathily yodels incomprehensible lyrics from inside a white box, you know you have been well and truly Björked. A percussionist played some bowls suspended in water. Everything stopped for a flute solo.
Like most music critics, I am all in favour of Icelandic experimentalist Björk Guðmundsdóttir. Throughout her career, the 53-year-old has challenged popular musical conventions to express herself in audacious new ways, musically and visually. I have seen her perform shows of head-spinning intensity, although always in venues smaller than the vast O2 Arena. Here, it was like watching an avant-garde jazz theatre troupe stage a hallucinogenic production of Midsummer Night’s Dream in the corner of an aircraft hangar.
Björk's Cornucopia tour has been billed as her “most elaborate staged concert to date”, which is saying something for a woman who has dressed as a flowery vulva playing imaginary instruments with a David Attenborough voiceover. Crucially, Cornucopia was developed as a theatrical production for a residency at a purpose-built arts centre in New York known as The Shed, a surround-sound venue with a capacity of 1,250. That is a 16th the size of the 20,000 capacity O2 Arena yet nothing had been done to scale up the production. Instead of the audience being immersed in Björk’s wild imagination, the star was dwarfed by the venue. The most mind-boggling thing about it was the ticket price.
Audience members coughed up £104 to stand on the arena floor. Seated towards the back, I struggled to work out what was going on much of the time. The constantly mutating CGI images were dazzling but it was a bit like watching a psychedelic Pixar animation with a soundtrack by Stockhausen and no cute talking animals to carry the narrative. There was some of kind of tent pod which performers would enter to change the “acoustic resonances” of their instruments. But when Björk disappeared inside, the screens displayed a distorted black-and-white shot of a bit of the side of the back of her head, so I can’t be entirely sure it was her.
You could argue that Björk is a victim of her own success. She has built up a huge audience while exploding the parameters of mainstream popular music. But she is also earning a living in a commercial market exploiting that popularity, and this show certainly did not deliver bang for bucks. Only a handful of hit songs featured in her set, all rendered nearly unrecognisable by stylised rearrangements. The rest were drawn from her torturously complex recent albums Utopia and Vulnicura. Musically, it was a concert without momentum, lacking in rhythmic drive or melodic flow, with Björk’s stylised vocals mixed very high over befuddling weaves of synth stabs and wind instruments.
It is all very well challenging rock clichés, but arena shows have already been pretty comprehensively reinvented by artists from Prince to U2. Recent tours by Muse, Arcade Fire and Mumford & Sons have used the central floor space, specially formatted screens and striking effects to draw audiences into more intimate experiences. Frankly, Take That offer a more thoughtfully integrated multi-media extravaganza than Björk.
In the right circumstances, this show might have made brains fizz and hearts burst. But honestly I could have got the same effect much cheaper at home by staring at a fancy screensaver while listening to myself heavy breathing over some flute music.
At the SSE Hydro, Glasgow on Mon. Tickets: ticketmaster.co.uk