The Bjork babies are dancing.
In an open space between the crowded, loud, die hard fans and the hillside couples lying back with their to-go glasses of pinot grigio, a ring of little girls are having a great time of their own. They are children of Bjork’s devoted fans and have been listening to this music in the car and at their mom’s parties for their entire lives: about 8 years.
They are the children of those fierce 90’s Riot Grrrls, and clearly, have had a good share of that brief, 90’s individuality and idealism taught to them, something carried from that shiny end of the century time when someone as singular as Bjork topped the charts and helped expand the horizons of a generation that return to celebrate that spark in this unlikely but perfect venue, Toronto’s Echo Beach.
Bjork’s wig is an orange confection that stands 2 feet out from her head in all directions, can be seen from anywhere in Ontario Place and, at a distance, paired as it is with a beautiful sparkly purple mini-dress, is suggestive of Disco. But it’s the opposite of that hollow imagery- it’s Bjork as a living album cover (as seen on 2011’s Biophelia) revealing something strange and beautiful, reminiscent of confounding creatures photographed deep in the ocean. Or is it a nebula? Biophelia is defined as an instinctive love of the natural world.
Bjork, the artist, dwells in these extremes of mystery: the last unknown places, the mysterious worlds that we reach for and dream of but are much more easily felt than understood. At this, her first Toronto visit in five years (the last time was at Virgin Music Fest), she surrounds herself with a group of women dressed in robes or raincoats, half of them singers and the other half, dancers.
They all come together at times like a choir, or dance madly like a mini audience, and their presence, like the impossible yet amazing wig, seems to fortify Bjork and inspire her performance. Her voice, so many years after the hit records “Debut” (1993) and “Post” (1995) is clear, strong, and just as we remember whether soaring, crying, whispering or growling in her inimitable way.
The first third of the show is ambient, paced out; building a deliberate momentum that will grow into a big finish. “One Day” is as fresh as it was in 1993, here performed solo with the back up singers and dancers gathered around on the stage like kids. It sounds as if everyone in attendance whistles along to the song’s signature keys. Its’ gentle mantra murmurs “One day/it will happen, one day it will all come true”. Artists touring their 20 year old material, especially landmark ones, have a difficult balance to strike between their fans’ nostalgia and their own need to grow and expand. Bjork walks that line capably.
A well executed performance is one where you aren’t thinking of the songs they didn’t play: while many of the early hits are set aside for newer material and a few assertive, passionate songs such as Army of Me (garnering one of the largest crowd reactions of the night and kicking off the more exuberant half of the show) and “Declare Independence” pack the biggest impact, the show unfolds just as it should. Here, Bjork encourages the crowd to “Make your own flag. Raise Your Flag.” in the show’s closer, an extended one song encore.
Bjork has a wonderfully nordic plainspeak that resonates with many issues we share or debate across cultures and nations: identity. Self-awareness. Resistance to the things that deeply trouble us. These are Bjork’s themes and she’s long been a flag bearer for them. These songs and the eternally epic “Hyperballad” (arguably one of the most beautiful, sad, empowering songs ever written) performed tonight are monsters- this petite Icelandic woman has the (deserved) swagger of Jay-Z, and is a force to be reckoned with.
Bjork’s unique vocals, along with her flexibility as an artist, have always lent themselves well to dance music, ambient sounds and remixes, and our audience is treated to some extended versions of songs that cross over into deep bass and jungle music, aided by her onstage DJ who seamlessly works within the live performance. It’s here, after so many years: that “eruption that never lets you down” and everyone is feeling it.
One of the little girls is in Indian feathers, and everyone has decided to make paper fans. Her friend wears a unicorn horn. In the dark it’s hard to tell if it’s something handmade from silvery tinfoil or something store bought, a play set, a fantastic costume purchased by a mom who’s still raising her own flag. Still hopeful. A ponytail of hyper rainbow coloured hair hangs down the unicorn’s back. Even in the dark it glows.
Bjork- retrospective artist review and live review, Toronto, Canada.
By Jaye Howell
Originally published in a slightly edited form in Lithium Magazine, July 20th 2013.