Music Review: Björk, Castlefield Arena

“At last the view is fierce
All that matters is”

It is four years since Björk launched her Biophilia installation with a residency at Campfield Market Hall and she now returns to the Manchester International Festival with the first European show of her Vulnicura tour. An open air gig in the north-west is a risky enterprise even in the midst of a July heatwave and sadly my nephew’s birthday party earlier in the afternoon had to draw the sting of the forecast rain so that we could get a blessedly dry and sunny evening in the Castlefield Arena.

And what an evening. Blending the intimacy and innovative song structures of her latest album Vulnicura, charting her break-up with Matthew Barney, with an exhilarating rummage through the back catalogue (look and learn, Kanye West), the seemingly indefatigable Björk remains as fresh and vital a live presence as she ever has – the uniqueness of her onstage emittances and indeed movement, the intense musicality that comes from her collaborators, the stunning clarity of that voice.

Given the rawness of the emotion of the new material “my soul torn apart, my spirit is broke” it is unsurprising that it is front-loaded here – a suite of five songs (chronological if not complete) from the stirring strings of ‘Stonemilker’ to the scorching epic scope of ‘Black Lake’ make for a magisterial if slightly muted beginning, the crowd itching for something more explosive and in the angular energy of ‘Notget’ with its accompanying fireworks and coloured smokebombs, it got it. 

The sonic world of Vulnicura probably most recalls Homogenic of her earlier albums and ably assisted by the swirling strings of The Heritage Orchestra, Manu Delago’s percussion and the enigmatic electronica of The Haxan Cloak (the night’s one mis-step, asking a Mancunian crowd to give it up for his native Wakefield!), the icy grandeur and crunching beats of ‘Hunter’ and ‘5 Years’ were the perfect natural fit, the driving drama of ‘Bachelorette’ an ecstatic high.

And reshaping other songs into this template resulted in equally incendiary results – muscular arrangements of ‘Where Is The Line?’ and ‘Mutual Core’ increased their vibrancy and paired well with the slowly reviving spirits of late Vulnicura cuts ‘Quicksand’ and ‘Mouth Mantra’ – “I am not hurt…”. And if one longed for a track from Debut, the trio of Post classics more than made up for that – the martial stridency of ‘Army of Me’, a neo-classical take on ‘Possibly Maybe’ and a simply euphoric ‘Hyperballad’ as a single song encore wrapped up a hugely satisfying gig.

In a year in which she will turn 50 and a solo career which has spanned three decades thus far, there’s still something deeply reassuring about seeing Björk live. You know you’re gonna get a crazy outfit (serving up butterfly realness here), but you also know you’re gonna get fierce musical and performative integrity. Seeing an artist so utterly subsumed in their craft yet remaining accessible, approachable even (if one dared to ever pin such a butterfly down), remains an absolute privilege. 

That’s why I’m up to my 7th time of seeing her in nearly 20 years and can’t see that stopping any time soon.

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