You can’t fault Björk’s ambition. Her career has been defined by a restless artistic urge to innovate and collaborate, to bring grand ideas, high-minded ideals and a wide-eyed imagination into popular music.
As the artist herself ventures, her latest project, Biophilia, a celebration of science, nature and music no less, which made its live debut last night at the Manchester International Festival, is perhaps her most ambitious yet. “The reason why Biophilia is on such a grand scale is that I can’t even attempt to explain sound and the world of rhythm and scales without taking in the solar system and atoms,” she says. “For me that’s sort of the same world.”
The show’s reference points seem to be Wildlife on One, Victorian theatre, Pan’s People and Andrew Lloyd-Webber’s Joseph.
Stood in the relatively tiny Campfield Market Hall – only 20 feet away from a barely raised stage surrounded by several large, bizarre and oddly beguiling instruments that are triggered to auto-play by in-built midi sensors (including the much talked-about and genuinely impressive-looking 10-foot-high pendulum harp) – FACT, and one suspects the rest of the crowd, wonders if she can pull this off.
The lights go down; a giant black birdcage descends from the roof firing bolts of electric sparks that, rigged to the sound system, trigger the kind of synapse-frazzling trickery one might expect from Aphex Twin. A bank of multiple screens above the stage show a satellite image of Earth and David Attenborough’s dulcet tones introduce us to the project’s all-encompassing narrative, the universe, our relationship to it and everything in between. Björk emerges to rapturous applause, sporting a suitably show-stealing gigantic ginger bouffant wig and sparkling blue dress, accompanied by a gaggle of 20 or more girls dressed in glistening gold and blue hooded tunics. They are not, it transpires, new recruits to American Apparel’s downtown Reykjavik store but rather an Icelandic choir. So far, and we’re only five minutes in, the show’s reference points seem to be Wildlife on One, Victorian theatre, Pan’s People and Andrew Lloyd-Webber’s Joseph and the Amazing Technicolour Dreamcoat. So far, so Björk…
It’s a surprise then, that it’s the music, and the earnest manner in which it’s delivered, that lets Biophilia down. Björk has stated that this is an educational project, but edutainment is a hard trick to pull off, especially when so much of the new material lacks discernible melody or the rousing emotional drama of Björk’s best songs. The fact that so many of the lyrics are literal rather than poetic attempts to equate the everyday with the universal doesn’t help; references to “trunks of DNA” and “Atlantic ridges” are all well and good if the song stirs you into inquisition, but most of Biophilia‘s tracks don’t, at least not on first airing. They are willfully experimental and obtuse, even by Björk’s standards, when you can’t help but feel what’s best suited to conveying such complex ideas are engaging hooks and soaring instrumentation. This is made all the more apparent when several of her new songs that do encompass these, ‘Cystalline’ and ‘Cosmogamy’, capture the sense of wonder that you suspect Björk’s so genuinely wants to deliver with this show.
There are, it must be said, some moments of the pulse-quickening genius that you expect from Björk.
While the intimate setting is wonderful the fact that Björk directs each song from a different side of the stage means that she doesn’t engage three quarters of the audience; this, surely, will be addressed as the show evolves. Perhaps most tellingly of all is the fact you actually wish the national treasure that is David Attenborough would shut up, so over-employed is he as a sort of know-it-all narrator, his recorded segments introducing each song’s narrative to the audible frustration of large swathes of the audience who want the show to ebb and flow rather than stop and start.
There are, it must be said, some moments of the pulse-quickening genius that you expect from Björk, including radical reworkings of some her classics, such as ‘Hidden Place’ and ‘All Is Full Of Love’, the latter making full use of the Icelandic choir with an elegiac rendition that has the crowd moving as one. The best though, is saved for the encore, when Björk returns to the stage alone save for the company of her percussionist Manu Delago, who sets about gently patting his gamelan set before the two perform a mesmerising, stripped-back version of ‘One Day’; here, at last, Björk’s dramatic, emotive delivery connects front and centre with everyone in the room.
Oh, and some news just in: Björk will bring Biophilia to the Isle of Wight in September, as she’s been confirmed as one of the headliners of Bestival 2011.