By Mark Guarino
A woman’s voice rises from behind a curtain. An organ rumbles underneath. “I’m going to prove the impossible really exists,” she sings over and over until there’s no choice but to follow up on the promise. After all, this is Bjork, the diminutive, iconic, impish and very peculiar Icelandic singer who over the past 14 years created a genre of music identifiable only by her. She opened her sold-out show at the Auditorium Theatre Saturday as only an evocative, hidden voice, but ended it 90 minutes later as a presence looming larger than life.
When the curtain rushed open, it revealed a band configuration that Chicago audiences will remember for a long time. In the cacophony that was the new song “Earth Intruders” — mad energy driven by many competing live and programmed beats — the stage was occupied by three men positioned at laptops and keyboards, a live drummer and a 10-women choir and brass horn section dressed in one-piece fluorescent bags fitted in the back with poles that held flags above each person’s body.
As for Bjork, she buzzed front and center wearing what looked like a human-sized golden hair scrunchy with leggings that looked like they were borrowed from a medieval court jester.
Shooting flames closed the song but the point was made already. In a career of shape-shifting albums, no one relishes the element of surprise more than Bjork. Her music veers between highly personal love songs and frenzied club breakdowns. Despite the tribal environment and military pomp of the stage design — flags of all different shapes and sizes hung and flew everywhere — the brief show leveled off to feature more of the former. Once the spectacle wore off, Bjork and her players settled for moodier fare like “Aurora” or “Venus as a Boy,” songs that required less flash and more introspection.
The music relied mainly on a harpsichord and pipe organ. Bjork’s dramatic and very powerful voice set the tone of each song and although it could easily cut through all her band’s electronics, she chose to remain more subdued. Restricting herself to only the stage’s front and center (never far from a monitor scrolling lyrics), she seemed restless and not focused. Songs were configured to incorporate the horns, but their arrangements forced them to sound blurred. On “All is Full of Love,” they lazily swooned. The brooding dragged on and the band seemed instructed to hold back.
The set only caught fire at the end. “Volta” (Atlantic), Bjork’s sixth and most recent album, features a dizzying choreography of beats, some supplied by master producers including Timbaland. The show matched that exuberance right before it was over. Lasers appeared and on new songs like “Innocence” and “Declare Independence,” Bjork allowed herself to finally rush to all corners of the stage, including its very edge. The combination of live and programmed beats created an inferno of rhythm that unleashed people into and down the aisles dancing. Euphoria became the final note of the night, better late than never.