"What's fertile in a wound? Why dwell in one?" writer Leslie Jamison asks in her beautiful essay "Grand Unified Theory of Female Pain," in which she discusses the complicated issues surrounding depictions of women's pain in art. "Wounds promise authenticity and profundity, beauty and singularity, desirability. They summon sympathy. They bleed enough light to write by. They yield scars full of stories and slights that become rallying cries. They break upon the fuming fruits of damaged engines and dust these engines with color."
Björk's latest album "Vulnicura" could be described as dwelling in a wound—she wrote the album in the aftermath of her breakup with artist Matthew Barney, with whom she has a daughter. "Vulnicura" catalogs with aching detail the dissolution of the relationship—"It had to be blunt," Björk said in an interview with Pitchfork. "I was sort of going into the Bergman movies with Liv Ullmann when it gets really self-pitying and psychological, where you're kind of performing surgery on yourself, like, What went wrong?"
The album may be a specific dissection of Björk's pain, but it doesn't feel self-indulgent—in fact, the more specific she gets, the more powerful the music feels, and that power was taken to an entirely new level in her performance this past Saturday at Carnegie Hall.
Björk is usually known for elaborate, theatrical stagings in her live performances, but this performance was relatively stripped down by comparison—producer Arca and percussionist Manu Delago sat toward the back of the stage with string ensemble Alarm Will Sound sitting in a semicircle in front of them, with Björk pacing the front of the stage as she sang.
For the first half of the show, she performed the first six songs on "Vulnicura" in the order they appear on the album. She wore an intricate headpiece, like the one from the album cover, which seemed to serve as a defense mechanism to keep her shielded from the audience as she bared the wound of her heart, singing with her renowned soprano voice, "I wake you up/ In the middle of the night/ To express my love for you/ Stroke your skin and feel you/ Naked I can feel all of you" ('History of Touches'). As the musicians performed, song lyrics and a visualization of the musical score were projected onto the wall behind the stage; it appeared as though Björk wanted the focus to be on the music, and the music alone.
That focus may have been for Björk's benefit as much as the audience's—after all, she had admitted to Pitchfork that she wasn't sure how she was going to get through performing these intensely personal songs in front of a crowd. But even if the stripped-down approach was just to help Björk perform, it kept the audience enraptured—at the quietest moments of the performance, the room was entirely silent, save for the clicking of cameras from the press photographers at the back of the hall. And if the performance was emotionally trying, you would never guess it from the quality of Björk's singing, as her voice rang out with a power beyond what you would expect from her 5-foot-4 frame.
While the first three songs drew the audience in, the emotion heightened dramatically at the fourth song, 'Black Lake,' a 10-minute mourning of the relationship's end. As the strings drew out elongated chords between verses, Björk breathed jaggedly into the mic, building the tension and emotional impact beyond what the recorded version of the song was able to accomplish. Arca and Delago added an insistent, building beat until she belted "I did it for love," allowing everyone to hear the full force of her "limitless emotions" that she accuses Barley of fearing. It was nearly impossible not to tear up at the sheer power of the music, not to feel sucked into the depths of Björk's gaping emotional wounds. After 'Notget'—which featured military-style percussive beats that made the air in the hall vibrate as Björk marched around stage, punching her fist in the air and singing, "Without love I feel the abyss/ Understand your fear of death"—concluded the first half, my friend and I needed to walk around just to shake off the performance's emotional grip.
Post-intermission, Björk connected with the audience more—she came out sans headpiece in a flowing dress, occasionally thanked the audience as it cheered between songs, and seemed more relaxed and fluid in her movements as she danced around stage. She performed some of her older songs, including the ethereal, more soothing 'Undo' off 2001's "Vespertine"; as she swayed on stage as she sang, it was almost easy to forget the emotional heaviness of the first half.
But then it was back, albeit with a slightly hopeful note, as she concluded the second half of her set with 'Mouth Mantra' from "Vulnicura." "My throat was stuffed/ My mouth was sewn up/ Banned from making noise/ I was not heard," it begins, but by the end of the song, her jaw has "fallen in" and she can be heard again; "I have followed a path/ That took sacrifices/ Now I sacrifice this scar/ Can you cut it off," she belts. The point is not that the pain is gone, because for Björk it clearly isn't yet; rather, that now she can let her art blossom from the wound, with the hope of eventually mending it. And that's part of the beauty of the album, and her performance: There is a grand universality in the specifics of her heartache which we can connect to and heal from.