Björk’s ‘Cornucopia’ live in London: an audacious, expectation-disrupting spectacular from an artist unbothered with people-pleasing

The O2, London, November 19 2019

“I don’t care about being popular,” says Greta Thunberg, in a specially recorded message about the urgency of climate action played towards the end of ‘Cornucopia’, Björk’s grand musical-theatrical spectacular. Neither, it would seem going by her interpretation of an arena show, does Björk very much.

Which is not to say that this show, a rich embodiment of her 2017 album ‘Utopia’ involving a 50-piece choir, seven flautists and months of work by the cream of the sound, art, fashion and film worlds, isn’t full of pleasure and wonders: for devotees, ‘Cornucopia’ spills over with joy like the horn of plenty from which it takes its name. But when you play a shiny dome like The O2 there are certain expectations. One is that you’ll have a support act and that you’ll come onstage about nine: instead ‘Cornucopia’ begins with a gorgeous five-song intro by the Hamrahlíð choir (of which Björk was once a member) and fans are still filing in as she herself takes the stage.

Another thing that’s understood is that you’ll play some hits. In this she complies a little, but the old songs are either truncated (‘Hidden Place’ and ‘Pagan Poetry’) or twisted into wild, dark versions of themselves that give and withhold at the same time (‘Venus as a Boy’, ‘Isobel’). Finally, in a corporate cavern like this, it’s a given that you’ll need to work the room a little. But Björk’s not here to charm, but enchant: ‘Cornucopia’ is a visually and atmospherically overwhelming big-picture production – with a fantastical, fungi-inspired set by theatre designer Chiara Stephenson, direction by Argentine film-maker Lucrecia Martel, wild floral-aquatic-carnal visuals by artist Tobias Gremmler and shimmering, structural costumes by Balmain and Iris Van Herpen – in which Björk remains determinedly just one player.

All this makes perfect sense for the songs. ‘Utopia’ as an album is all about finding a new paradigm – not just for Björk, as she reshaped her life after the breakdown of her relationship with Matthew Barney, but for all of us, in our ecological crisis. As the message flashed up onscreen halfway through the gig reminds us, “ We have to imagine something that doesn’t exist, carve intentionally into the future… make a musical mockup, then move into it”. ‘Cornucopia’ is that mockup, and it’s definitely not your usual night in North Greenwich.

In its most audacious moments, it works wonderfully, disrupting your expectations and giving you something even better. For ‘Show Me Forgiveness’, Björk conceals herself inside an ovoid vocal chamber designed for her by engineering firm Arup, to recreate the privacy in which she composes her songs. A camera inside transmits her image on to the ribboned gauzes that frame the stage as she lets loose vocally, creating a weird paradox of intimacy and exposure. It’s a potent effect on ‘Features Creatures’, a painfully vulnerable song about peering at a new world through the afterimage of old love.

‘Body Memory’, ‘Utopia’’s darkest depth, is introduced by an incredible, body-and-brain-shaking sub-bass tone created by an 800lb organ pipe, an unsettlingly powerful practical lesson in the physicality of sound. As it throbs on into the track’s jagged, knifing beats, something descends from the ceiling: a circle flute, made of four instruments welded together and played by four musicians as Björk stands in the centre. For the delicately beautiful ‘Blissing Me’, meanwhile, percussion maestro Manu Delago plays “water drums” – hollowed-out pumpkins carved to create different tones, suspended in an aquarium with a submerged microphone. They create a satisfyingly fleshy, wet, hollow sound, accompanied by the trickle and tinkle of poured water.

At other points, though, the more questing, amorphous ‘Utopia’ songs like ‘Tabula Rasa’ or Losss’ and the masque-like quality of ‘Cornucopia’’s production don’t feel best served by this setting. A space so huge isn’t the ideal place to appreciate the specially designed 360-degree sound, or, unless you’re close to the front, soak in the rich detail of the design: the side-of-stage curtain-screens are used mostly not to zoom in on the performers and bring them closer to the whole audience, but to extend the visuals and create 3D effects. At other stops around the world, ‘Cornucopia’ inhabited artier spaces – the Shed in New York, a custom-built pavilion in Mexico City; booking a London venue that could do justice to the staging and also accommodate the necessary tech and audience was always going to be something of a compromise. That said, on the likes of ‘The Gate’ and ‘Arisen My Senses’, the raw power of Björk’s voice is all that’s needed to cut through.

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“Thank you for tonight, London,” she says as she closes the post-Greta encore with a delightfully ravey version of ‘Notget’. “You’re my second home, I’m so grateful for the musical upbringing you gave me.” We in turn should be thankful for an artist wild enough to take a show this audacious to a venue in which she’ll be followed, over the next two nights, by the more straightforwardly people-pleasing performances of McFly and Little Mix. This is a time where we all need to push it, to find new ways of being: like the lady herself sings in the show’s penultimate track: “Imagine a future and be in it.”

Björk played: 

‘Ísland, farsælda frón / Vísur vatnsenda-rósu / Sonnets/Unrealities XI / Cosmogony / Maríukvæði’
‘The Gate’
‘Arisen My Senses’
‘Show Me Forgiveness’
‘Venus As A Boy’
‘Blissing Me’
‘Flute Solo’
‘Body Memory’
‘Hidden Place’
‘Mouth’s Cradle’
‘Features Creatures’
‘Pagan Poetry’
‘Sue Me’
Tabula Rasa’
‘Future Forever’

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