Brian Hancill

Breaking up is hard to do

Anything resembling a good tune was hard to find but I did spot a man with an alarming whole-head tattoo

Breaking up is hard to do
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’Will you be dancing?’ the man in front asks his friend before the lights go down. ‘Most likely,’ she says. Two songs in and it’s looking less and less likely.

The world’s best-known Icelander is fronting a 27-piece chamber orchestra in a strings-only performance of songs from her last album (not her most toe-tapping collection). It feels like hard work. Lyrically, Vulnicura (Greek for ‘cure for wounds’) is a blow-by-blow account of her split with long-term partner Matthew Barney. Musically, anything resembling a good tune is hard to find.

Each verse of ‘Black Lake’, the album’s mournful centrepiece, ends in a wavering monotone that fades to silence. Watching conductor Andrew Gourlay’s hands is the only way to tell if the song is over or not. Inevitably, we miss a cue and applaud just as the anguished tale starts up again.

And what anguish. Björk does not lament her lost love with hints and allusions like Dylan in Blood on the Tracks or Joni Mitchell in Blue. Her words are raw and bleeding. ‘My soul torn apart/ My spirit is broken,’ she sings, face part-hidden by a feathered mask. It must help to wear a mask as you pour your broken heart out in front of 5,000 people.

Finally, the contrast between vocal emotion and instrumental austerity begins to sound less like a hard slog and more like a thing of beauty. When the Aurora Orchestra fills the hall with the flow of warm chords that bring ‘Family’ to life I want to rewind and hear the first few numbers again with my ears recalibrated. Too late.

People-watching makes the interval fly by. There are white guys done up like Indian princes; a very tall woman in head-to-toe black robes and a gold crown; a man with an alarming whole-head tattoo. Lots of male couples, too, some with matching hipster beards.

I talk to a photographer who knows Björk. He says she is using this show to present her break-up songs in the starkest possible way and then she will be done with them and move on. It sounds plausible: performance as therapy on a grand scale.

Back on stage in a new outfit that looks like a jellyfish, she sings a few older songs. Most are obscure — only ‘Joga’ might be vaguely familiar to the non-devotee — but they sound good without the usual skittering beats. In ‘Pagan Poetry’ there’s a singalong and we all contribute backing vocals in our best Icelandic accents (‘I luff him, I luff him’).

Back for two encores, Björk sips from a glass of champagne, sings an exquisite ‘Anchor Song’, then announces: ‘One more song. Maybe a chance to dance just a little bit.’ I look around for the girl I overheard earlier, but a string-driven ‘Pluto’ sets no feet in motion. Maybe synchronised air-punching counts as dancing tonight.

The crowd demand more by echoing the song’s wordless and atonal refrain back at the empty stage, reaching a crescendo so huge it seems unthinkable that Björk will resist. Now would be the time to unveil a quirky new arrangement of ‘Venus as a Boy’. A playful ‘It’s Oh So Quiet’ would be brilliant.

Then she’s back, but only to let us down gently. ‘As you know you are very dear to me ... so thank you, thank you,’ she says before skipping off for the last time. No one minds too much. As we disperse into the dark streets of London that otherworldly chorus is still echoing into the night.