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Review: Björk's Carnegie Hall concert is a mesmerizing act of catharsis

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Kevin Mazur

The Icelandic singer Björk’s matinee performance at Carnegie Hall on March 14, part of a seven-concert series, starts at noon. It’s Saturday. People around the city might still be asleep, but Björk’s audience is rapt with attention. From the show’s unconventional hour to the fans wearing things like veiled baseball caps and furry, red earmuffs, it’s clear, instantly, that this is no ordinary concert.

“At the Artist’s request, please refrain from taking photographs or recording images,” a sign on the auditorium door reads. “This is distracting to Björk, and she would encourage you to please enjoy being part of the performance, and not preoccupied with recording it.”

New York City itself is part of Björk’s performance right now. There’s this concert series, in which she presents the raw, deeply personal songs of heartbreak from her new album Vulnicura, written and recorded after her breakup with her longtime partner, the contemporary artist Matthew Barney. In conjunction with these concerts is a poorly executed (albeit well-intentioned) Museum of Modern Art retrospective, a career-spanning celebration. In terms of musicians, only David Bowie, at London’s Victoria and Albert Museum, has received a similar treatment.

Björk’s fans treat her with reverence; her music, with its lyrical openness and complex melodies, seems to demand it. Writing about last week’s concert at Carnegie Hall, Taylor Ho Bynum at the New Yorker said Björk “imbues all her work…with a sense of ritualism and ceremony.”

It is quite the ceremony: Onstage, lights beam onto the singer and her band from below, giving the ritualistic effect of an array of candles. Wearing her prickly headpiece, part-sea urchin, part-halo, Björk stands in front of a 15-person string band outfitted in white, called Alarm Will Sound. Behind them, on raised platforms, are Björk’s co-producer and collaborator Arca (Alejandro Ghersi) and percussionist Manu Delgado.

She plays the first six songs from Vulnicura in order. The combination of live strings, Björk’s flawless howl (which sounds exactly like, if not clearer than, her recordings), and the Carnegie Hall acoustics create a cocoon of sound that envelops the crowd. During “Lionsong,” the violins and cellos synch so perfectly with her voice, it’s like they’re carrying it. On “Family,” she wails, “Is there a place / where I can pay respects / for the death of my family?” As she dances across the stage, Björk thrusts her arms forward, then back, sticking her chest out. “So where do I go / to make an offering?” Her head may be covered, but her heart is unobstructed, vulnerable. She’s offering her heart to the audience, tossing her neck back and gazing upward.

When she sings the final line of the 10-minute epic, “Black Lake,” (“I burn off, layer by layer / jettison”) her voice fizzles out as if a flame singed it. The effect is mesmerizing.

The final song before intermission is “Notget,” and it feels like the show’s climax. Arca plays Björk’s recorded voice back over her live one as she sings of pain and healing. Arca’s beats grow more industrial, while only a single cello plays. Björk’s movements are jerkier, and the percussion builds to a war march. Emotions are high, but right after the song fades out, she offers a quick, bright, “Sank you!”

During the second half of the show, Björk plays older songs (“The Pleasure Is All Mine,” “Come To Me,” “Undo,” “Harm Of Will”) and finishes Vulnicura (but skipping “Atom Dance”). With her headpiece off, in a white dress, platform sneakers, and heavy eyeliner, it feels like Björk’s healing, mourning ritual has completed its course. Every time she smiles, the audience’s giddiness is palpable. While applauding for an encore, the crowd furiously stomps its feet, like children on a sugar high.

That sign on the door is true: you do feel like a part of the show, like you’re helping Björk through seven acts of catharsis. Her majestic talents and playful personality are fully visible, in a much clearer display here than in a swan dress kept behind a case of glass at a museum. An artist like Björk needs a stage, and a record as personal as Vulnicura almost requires a performance as intimate as these sessions.

If you couldn’t make it to Carnegie Hall, there are plenty of chances to see her: Björk is playing at Brooklyn’s Kings Theatre and New York City Center throughout the month of March, and is headlining Governor’s Ball on Saturday, June 6.

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