It’s a universal truth that festivals are all about indulgence and Wilderness – set in rural Oxfordshire – harvests wild, hedonistic fantasy and reduces it to a fine art. As well as gaggles of boozy twenty-somethings, there are endless wellbeing-based and foodie-friendly events that include paddleboard yoga and a three-course banquet prepared by Michelin-starred celebrity chef Angela Hartnett. Consequently, the music feels like a footnote, and Björk’s Friday night slot shines like a beacon from a line-up that also features Ben Howard and George Clinton.
Before the Icelandic singer’s closing set, Berlin electronic wizard Nils Frahm does his one-man band thing, stabbing the air with exquisite piano but also robbing it of personality at the expense of his brainy electronica. The bass whomps and fidgety beats probably help cleanse the crowd’s palate, and people soon begin flooding in from all angles for the main event. They had been depressingly absent before that; possibly off eating duck confit somewhere.
A few days before the festival, Björk cancelled the remaining dates of her European tour, and the fact only Wilderness survived imbues this show with a sense of privilege and rarity. The 49-year-old gave new album ‘Vulnicura’ its UK debut at Manchester International Festival last month, and tonight’s performance, again backed by London’s Heritage Orchestra, is similarly heavy on new material. The record’s subject matter is painful (it was written about the breakdown of her relationship with artist Matthew Barney), and Björk’s voice – delicate, elastic, yet deafeningly powerful – is wracked with emotion. That you never see her expression – an ornate mask that matches her floor-length crimson gown obscures her face – means the pain is contained only in her vocal, making it all the more compelling.
After opening with ‘Notget’, Björk winds back the clock to 1997’s ‘Hunter’ – cawing about the pressures of success while skittering beats rain down like giant pins and needles. She quickly reverts to the catharsis of ‘Vulnicura’, delivering ‘Stonemilker’, ‘Lionsong’ and ‘Family’ in succession, as images of the singer fill the screen behind her. For ‘Black Lake’’s rollercoaster of heart-on-sleeve angst, she’s shown standing by the water’s edge wearing a cascading yellow dress and a serene expression at odds with the darkness of lines like “My soul torn apart/My spirit is broken”. In the background The Haxan Cloak (the enigmatic Yorkshire producer who worked on ‘ Vulnicura’ and is Björk’s touring beatmaster) affects a dark and momentous build-up that sounds like a synthetic heartbeat.
His beats remain a dark force throughout, and though there are pink fireworks and gems from Björk’s back catalogue – including a frantic ‘Army Of Me’ and the closing ‘Hyperballad’ – this isn’t exactly a crowd-pleasing show. As the audience grows restless towards the end, it becomes clear that Björk headlining what is essentially a festival for foodies – especially when so much of her current live performance is drawn from devastating personal problems – might just have been a massive waste of talent.