Björk looked like the god of spring as she sang about the winter of a love story this afternoon at New York's Carnegie Hall. For the first half she performed songs from her latest album, Vulnicura, which documents the emotional detritus of a difficult breakup. Her head was entirely encased in a ball of silver-yellow spikes—a version of the one she wears on Vulnicura's cover and in the "Lionsong" video—and as she moved, it rippled like the fronds of a sea anemone. Or maybe it was more rays of sunlight, for at times, it felt like she was roaring through flames. In those moments—on "Family" and "Not Get," for example—her voice burned with anger and pain, sounding round and rich as she whipped the flowing material of her dress as if to underline the point.
She shared Carnegie Hall's half-dome stage with a 15-piece string section, all dressed in white. Behind it, on raised platforms, the Venezuelan artist and Vulnicura co-producer Arca and Austrian composer Manu Delago each summoned enchanting sounds from their respective instruments: laptop and percussion. A number of tender duets presented themselves over the course of the couple of hours: between Björk and Arca, between Björk and Delago, and between soaring strings and jagged beats. Perhaps the most important duet, however, is the one she performed with herself, flipping between bouts of rage and playfully wriggling to the music's swelling undercurrents, a consummate master of tension and release.
Shadows joined her in dancing across the curving stage—a giant Arca to her right, and a giant Manu to her left, along with a jungle of shapes caused by the movements of the string musicians. But it was the shadows cast from Björk's memories that dominated the stage. On "History of Touches," she delivered the line I wake you up/ in the middle of the night/ to express my love for you/ stroke your skin and feel you with such control that the personal recollection became a profound statement on the rituals of human relationships. We love each other then we lose each other, but the intimacy is archived and becomes a part of us.
A short intermission provided a break from the intensity, and even Bjork seemed to have needed it: she returned to the stage buoyant, sans head-mask, and wearing a massive smile. In this closing half, she performed songs from her previous albums, including Vespertine's "Undo" and Volta's "Wanderlust," while close-up footage of mating slugs writhing in slimy ecstasy was projected onto the wall behind her. Everyone drank it up. Too soon, the audience reluctantly filtered out of the hall and back into New York's drizzly streets. Björk has always surprised and delighted, but to see her perform Vulnicura is to be a witness to her rising from its ashes, more powerful than ever.
Photo credit: Kevin Mazur