Bjork on SNL: Hmm, B-minus?

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Icelandic singer Björk gave a highly anticipated performance on “Saturday Night Live” last night, her first on the show in almost ten years. It’s an interesting time for Björk: with a new album and high-profile tour imminent, she’s seemingly emerging from a kind of artistic cocoon that she appeared to enter after the traumatic experience of filming the nearly unwatchable (in my opinion) “Dancer in the Dark.” Think back: the immense artistic achievement of 1997’s Homogenic was followed by Vespertine and Medulla (in 2001 and 2004 respectively): introverted, experimental albums with none of Homogenic‘s vertigo-inducing vistas of sound or emotional intensity. After that, as if to thumb her nose at critics who thought she couldn’t get more left-field, she hooked up with Matthew Barney, and their combined effort, “Drawing Restraint,” seemed both weaker and weirder than the individual artists’ work.

So, when news emerged that Björk would be working with Timbaland on her new album Volta, people like me — who enjoyed her weirdness, but worried she might be losing her relevance — rejoiced. The first single, “Earth Intruders,” was intriguing both for its accessibility and its distance from what both Björk and Timbaland have done before: a galumphing double-time beat dominates the track, and strangely, its catchiest moments come without a real chorus or “hook.” Not necessarily astounding, but pretty good.

With Björk headlining the main stage on the first day of the Coachella festival this Friday (4/27), SNL was to be our “sneak preview” for how she would approach the new material live, and unfortunately, I’m not sure all the bugs are worked out. During “Intruders,” the insistent beat was a little overwhelming, muddying up the delicate plinks and squeals that give the track its charm; a troup of female backup singers in primary-colored robes added heft to the chants of “We are the Earth intruders / We are the paratroopers,” but when they started blowing on horns, the effect was grating. Bjork herself seemed a bit lost in this song without a center, and only her cries of “Turmoil! / Carnage!” in what passes for the verse captured some of the transcendent vocal tone that’s the essence of what Björk does best. For a comparison, check out this video of the Homogenic track “Joga,” live — now that’s what I call Björk. Check back here starting Friday night for my updates and reviews from Coachella to see how it all turns out.

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