Listen hard. Which Björk do you hear? The genius sprite composing science-fiction operas on the margins of our dying planet? Or that strange lady in the swan dress?
Twenty-two years into her solo career, those two prevailing images — visionary outsider vs. pretentious weirdo — have never felt more insufficient. Because, as otherworldly as it can be, the blood that pumps through the Icelandic pop star’s most imaginative work has always delivered universal truths. Her most dazzlingly abstract songs often double as simple pledges of love, loyalty, courage, pleasure.
But it’s never easy to discern the truth in the fog of hype, and, with a sparkly new Björk retrospective on view at New York’s Museum of Modern Art, the fog is plenty thick. Her new album, “Vulnicura,” feels like a much more important destination, anyway. It offers an astonishing chronology of an obliterated romantic partnership, the eviscerating grief that followed and the healing that’s still underway. (Perhaps only for Björk could an album so scaldingly intimate double as one of her most accessible.)
For someone widely recognized as a boundary-leaper, it’s funny how comfortably she inhabits the center of things. Now 49, she has built her temples on the fault lines separating high and low, cosmic and terrestrial, yesterday and tomorrow.
She’s frequently lauded as the creator of her own universes, but she has only ever lived at the locus of the one we all share. Our enduring romance with her music — and pop music itself, really — is rooted in the fact that the simple stuff can harbor unfathomable complexity, while the complex stuff is often trying to communicate something very simple.
What’s more, the future that she has been preparing us for seems as though it has finally arrived. We’re baby-stepping into a digital age that constantly threatens to reduce our lives into something inconsequential and disconnected from meaning. But every time Björk answers a flickering rat-a-tat of digital percussion with her combustion of ecstatic vowels, she’s proving that humanity and technology can explode in the same direction.
Her momentum is fueled by a wild curiosity, but the breadth of her sonic palate is more than a show-offy gesture of global fluency; it’s a metaphor for surviving the hyper-abundance of the information age. We have access to an unprecedented profusion of shared data — it’s our duty to do cool and unpredictable things with it.
As she sang in 1993, “It takes courage to enjoy it.” But it also takes work. The alien muumuus and trippy music videos currently crammed into the MoMA might help stoke the horizons of our collective imagination, but they might also tangle our access to Björk’s fundamental message. Are these conjoined spectacles an invitation or an obstacle?
It was impossible to detect what Björk might have been feeling as she strode onto the stage at Carnegie Hall a few ticks past noon on Saturday; her face was obscured by a spherical crown-mask designed to resemble either protective quills or starbursts of expanded consciousness.
This matinee was her first public performance since the January release of “Vulnicura,” so the artist was stepping into a room groggily re-breathing its own bated breath. Encounters like this usually happen at night, but this was a stately concert hall filled with bed-heads eager to be awed.
Backed by a 15-player string section, her current co-producer Arca and the dynamo percussionist Manu Delago, Björk opened with “Stonemilker,” the first track from “Vulnicura,” during which she demanded “emotional respect” as she used her index finger to pop an imaginary bubble like a diva from another world.
Behind the musicians, a video projection of animated musical notation scrolled past, tipping the audience off to which sounds were about to launch into the air. But during “History of Touches,” a ballad mourning a malfunctioning love, the music fittingly slipped off the grid, forcing Björk to improvise with aleatoric wails. It didn’t feel like a derailment. The song wanted to be free.
After an intermission, she returned without the mask, wearing a lavender frock and a hint of optimism on her face. “Women like us, we strengthen most,” she sang on “Pleasure Is All Mine” from 2004’s “Medulla,” nodding to the latent maternal grace that girds so much of her songbook.
And during the show-closing “Wanderlust,” she offered a mantra for the perpetual uncertainty of existence itself: “I feel at home whenever the unknown surrounds me.”
The audience generally held back its affectionate applause until the last note of each song decayed into silence, and when it was all over, the crowd was plunged back into the gray daylight of 57th Street. Reality had been waiting on the other side of the wall.
Four blocks south and just around the corner, the Museum of Modern Art seemed to be testing the tensile strength of its seams.
Small, hot and crowded, MoMA’s “mid-career retrospective” crams a paucity of Björk’s costumes, lyric sheets and props into a claustrophobic mini-maze, and the show’s curators have been justly pilloried for it. Half of the exhibition is coupled with a self-guided audio tour that feels like a bedtime story.
“I don’t know exactly who the MoMA audience is, to be honest, but I’ve been having an imaginary audience, which is sort of the average person who doesn’t listen to music that much,” she said in a recent interview with Fast Company. “She goes on a weekend trip with her family to MoMA and discovers sound a little bit, and she thinks, ‘Oh, I actually love this. Sound waves going through my body: It feels nice! I’m going to listen to some more music.’ ”
In addition to making plain that this citadel of fine art is also a place that tweens from the Midwest visit on class trips, Björk was confirming that her most important work has always been the stuff landing on our ears.
That much is evident with the video installation for “Black Lake,” which features Björk wandering a barren volcanic landscape on two opposing movie screens, singing about the brutality of abandonment, literally beating her breast. If anything, these 11 minutes of lush sound should affirm that human beings use more than hearing to listen.
In another theater, 32 music videos play on a loop that kicks off with 1993’s “Human Behavior,” directed by Michel Gondry. Like David Bowie before her and Lil Wayne since, Björk posits herself as an alien observer taking giddy notes on a species that obeys “definitely, definitely, definitely no logic.”
It all looks terrific and sounds massive. Director Chris Cunningham’s 1999 clip for “All Is Full of Love,” which features two cyborgs getting freaky in the uncanny valley, remains as profound and paralyzing as ever, while the geothermal puppet show of director Andrew Thomas Huang’s 2012 video for “Mutual Core” is detonative and prismatic in a way that it will never be on YouTube.
While so much of Björk’s music can help us better figure out who we are as social animals, sentient beings and biological organisms, the cramped layout of this exhibition may only help confirm which culture-devouring tribe we belong to.
Which is to say, the club-crawlers won’t flinch. As citizens of the night life, what are we if not champions of standing around in stuffy rooms, waiting for something extraordinary to happen?
Björk recently described “Vulnicura” to Pitchfork as a “singer-songwriter thing,” in the sense that it’s confessional, an act of emotional exfoliation that might appear uncouth, or worse, pedestrian.
The album documents her slow separation from longtime partner and father of her young daughter, the artist Matthew Barney. The singer seems reticent about all of the oversharing.
“First I was worried it would be too self indulgent,” she wrote on her Web site upon the album’s release. But “hopefully the songs could be a help, a crutch to others and prove how biological this process is.”
As ever, Björk’s vocal melodies and phrasings on “Vulnicura” obey their own abstract logic, but the lyrics on the page often read firm and clear. On “Family,” she describes the healing power of music as “a swarm of sound around our heads . . . this place of solutions.”
There’s a very traditional transaction taking place here: music-making as an act of materialization, taking something from the deep inside and chucking it out into the world to be relieved of it. For listeners to feel compelled to pick it up, they must be able to recognize themselves in it, but also feel that they’re encountering something much greater than themselves.
That’s where Björk’s voice factors in. It’s a beautiful and powerful instrument, a valve for emotions bigger than our own, with a rasp that sounds like it’s coming from someplace between adolescence and adulthood. Basking in it can feel as nourishing, life-affirming and dangerous as an afternoon spent in the sun.
But because we’ve now had 22 years to get used to this magnificent sound — more than that if you followed the asymmetrical pop of her ’80s band, the Sugarcubes — it doesn’t feel so unsettling in its intensity.
That’s good. We’re better equipped to hear the radical humanity in this music, and better equipped to absorb the lessons that come with it: that we will survive our suffering. That our existence is wondrous and meaningful. That compassion requires imagination. That everything is going to turn out.
These lessons might seem banal — which might be why Björk has embraced the necessity of finding such spectacular new ways to teach them.