There are both parallels and stark differences between tonight’s Björk show and her last appearances in Manchester. Geographical proximity throws up one particular similarity; in what is probably the only part of the city centre that’s usually completely devoid of live music, the venues for this gig and her seven-night residency in 2011 are a literal stone’s throw away, assuming you’re in possession of slightly higher-than-average upper-arm strength. Both now and then, the concerts were part of the Manchester International Festival, a veritable feast of creativity that takes over the city centre for two weeks every other July.
Flamboyant costumes provide another point of comparison; when Iceland’s favourite daughter launched her Biophilia tour here in 2011, she took to the stage at the Campfield Market Hall - a building under the operation of the Museum of Science and Industry and usually used for showcasing old Spitfires - in a sequined blue dress and outrageous ginger wig; tonight, she appears to have come dressed as a butterfly, in a figure-hugging black-and-yellow outfit that includes a mask and some impressive wings.
And yet, in terms of circumstance, it’s difficult to imagine a starker contrast between these two appearances. Last time, Björk was premiering Biophilia, a concept record based around themes of nature; accordingly, that was what the shows focused on, with a live Tesla coil accompanying ‘Thunderbolt’, a gravity-operated harp playing a key role, and narration throughout from David Attenborough. Vulnicura, released in January, could not, thematically at least, be further removed. It deals with a breakup in uncompromising and intensely personal fashion. It might not be sonically too far from Biophilia - it further pursues that album’s fascination with freeform electronica - but in terms of feel and atmosphere, it’s a million miles away.
It might be naive to overlook the obvious practical considerations - outwith the arena, where’s big enough for her? - but it’s also difficult to shake the feeling that there’s no venue in town that would have left Björk as starkly exposed to a large crowd as she is tonight. The Bowl is an outdoor space in a city that seldom has any use for one, and even as she’s backed by a healthy string section as she arrives on stage, she still looks lonely up there. The sparse nature of these new tracks - the wavering “Stonemilker”, the glitchy, orchestral drama of “Mouth Mantra”, the ten-minute odyssey of menacing despair that is “Black Lake” - leaves her with little to fall back on in front of a sold-out audience of around five thousand, but her vulnerability is crucial in relaying the album’s message.
There’s a smattering of older tracks too, of course, but this isn’t a setlist that’s just been thrown together; there’s intelligence to the cherry-picking of the back catalogue. “Army of Me” dates back two decades to Post, but the heavy, industrial nature of its electronica provides a neat counterpoint to Vulnicura. You can say precisely the same of “5 Years”, also plucked from that LP, but most interesting is the hat-trick of songs from 1997’s Homogenic; “5 Years” is blotchy, bare-bones stuff, “Bachelorette” excels in string-driven theatricality, and “Hunter” puts vocal acrobatics front-and-centre. The connecting thread, of course, is the pairing of electronic textures with an orchestra that dips and dives, but never overshadows a singer who simultaneously manages to sound, by turns, more fragile and more powerful than she ever has.
There’s visual flourishes, too, of course - some cleverly-curated projections, gorgeous paint cannons against an early evening sky and, as “Hyperballad” fades out during the single-song encore, a firework display. They still feel relatively restrained, though, and you suspect that will be the approach going forwards for Vulnicura live (tonight is the first European show in support of it.) However she might dress herself up, whichever effects she might choose to employ as embellishments, the fact of the matter is that there’s a reason that Manchester International Festival keeps inviting Björk back. It’s an arts festival, and she is - in the truest sense of the word - an artist.