BY Harry Tafoya in Music , Opinion | 17 OCT 22

Björk’s ‘Fossora’ Guides Listeners Through Jagged Heights

On her latest album, the musician tackles mourning and uses memory as a way to enrich life’s soil

BY Harry Tafoya in Music , Opinion | 17 OCT 22

In a 2022 Guardian interview, Björk called her tenth record, Fossora (2022), her ‘mushroom album’, and though she has gone to great lengths to assert its particularly fungal funk, in the scope of her almost 30-year solo career, the distinction feels both important and somewhat negligible. Earthiness, flamboyance and dissolution have been constant themes for the artist, and nature – in all of its muck and majesty – has been a favourite metaphor for the vastness and violence of the human heart. Björk’s cult of personality (and batty celebrity caricature) is deeply rooted in her identification with the natural world, which can be traced in Björk-lore back to the 1990s: blasting Public Enemy in the deepest countryside (New Yorker, 2004), cheerleading an erupting volcano (Page Six, 2021), pummelling through snowdrifts on her way to school (When Björk Met Attenborough, 2013). Growing up Icelandic seems to have given the musician both a permanent door to the outside and a lifelong compositional challenge: to not only match its jagged heights but to articulate her place within it.

What continues to make Björk’s music so enduring, admirable and provocative is the push-pull dynamic between her love for the world and the complications of being in it. Her ultimate project as an artist has been to bridge contradiction with communication: locating the ‘mutual coordinates’ between seemingly insurmountable binaries and offering her hand to the listener to guide them through. Across her body of work, Björk has dived headlong into the ancient and modern, the digital and physical, and the volcanically interpersonal: leveraging her talents as a songwriter to tease fraught emotions from surprising places, and her genius as a composer and synthesizer to forge ahead when language fails.

Portrait of Björk, 2022. Courtesy: Vidar Logi

As a young woman, Björk’s ability to see through the baffling manners and bonkers logic of human behaviour sometimes took the form of a punkish sneer, casting herself as an Icelandic wildling unbound by either social or musical convention. As she’s matured, her rude daring has given way to an increasingly decentred perspective, one that’s still grounded in the particular, but possesses a wider emotional view of how her life has flowered through having known and loved others. Björk’s last two records – Vulnicura (2015) and Utopia (2017) – found the singer considering the effects of trauma and forgiveness across generations, but on Fossora she makes them her primary subjects. The result is one of her most generous and thematically rich albums.

Fossora’s fungal motif operates on a few levels. The first is in its irregular, rhizomatic growth. Fossora offers up a whole spectrum of Björk sounds that evoke and update multiple eras of the artist’s career. Ode to digital connection, ‘Ovule’ levitates on a bed of triumphant trombone reminiscent of 2007’s Volta, while the breathless ‘Allow’ could find a place among the visceral sex jams of 2001’s Vespertine. Whether recording Fossora triggered a retrospective note in the singer (she also recently released a podcast, Sonic Symbolism, describing the making of each album), these moments highlight a truism about her work, that it has developed in wildly unpredictable, non-linear ways to reproduce itself.

The musical motifs that most clearly distinguish Fossora’s palate are bass clarinet, woodwinds and wildly enough, gabber. To the uninitiated, gabber is a subgenre of techno characterised by its relentlessness. Its signature sound is the pulse of a distorted kickdrum weighted down by bass reverb. Played at ear-splitting volume and face-melting speed, it immediately registers as a series of unyielding blows to the soft tissue of the listener’s brain. But if one persists, gabber begins to both heighten and recalibrate the body’s internal rhythms, causing an intensely visceral alignment between oneself and the music. In a 2022 interview with The Atlantic, the singer noted that she was inspired by mushrooms’ capacity to act like ‘nervous centres for forests’, and in their brute heft, Björk’s pummelling beats provide a gnarly jolt to the warm sensuality of her arrangements.

Rather than carelessly suturing these contrasting styles, Björk deploys a fairly discreet form of the genre to accent her work. In lead single ‘Atopos’, soaring flutes give way to ominous room tone as an acoustic kick drum rises and bangs its way to the bitter end. On the album’s title track, Björk and Indonesian duo Gabber Modus Operandi offer the record’s most bruising moment, as the floor supporting the song’s slanting staircase of woodwinds suddenly falls out and mangled bass pounds mercilessly in the listener’s ear.

Main image: Björk, Fossora, 2022, album cover. Courtesy: Vidar Logi

Fossora was produced in the wake of the 2018 passing of Björk’s mother Hildur Rúna Hauksdóttir’s, continuing through the pandemic. Unlike the clenched fist of Vulnicura, which can rightfully retain the title of ‘Björk’s grief album’, her approach to death on the record is mournful but resolute. ‘Ancestress’ follows a play-by-play reckoning, similar to that conjured on Vulnicura’s infidelity ballad ‘History of Touches’. The portrait is harrowing. According to the Guardian piece, Hildur Rúna was fierce, original and feverishly committed – she once went on hunger strike against the building of an aluminium smelting plant on a nature reserve – but in decline, as Björk sings in ‘Ancestress’, she is frail, pathetic and only has her doctors to protest. In the track’s emotional nadir, Björk lingers on each line with halted breath: ‘The machine of her breathed all night / while she rested / revealed her resilience / until it didn’t’. But as she pauses, the music swells, and then, incredibly, so does she. Hildur Rúna’s ‘falsetto lullabies’ and ‘idiosyncratic sense of rhythm’ live on in the work of her daughter, as she sings in ‘Ancestress’, and so too ultimately does her life’s example. On ‘Sorrowful Soil’, Björk pays her a final compliment in a chorus that stutters and chants behind her as if her internal monologue was choking back a sob: ‘You did well / You did your best / You did well’.

On tracks like these, the fungal theme is most meaningfully felt: even the most difficult emotions eventually break down and memory goes on to enrich life’s soil. ‘Victimhood’ is the record’s hardest pill to swallow but by far its most nourishing. An excavation out of self-pity and woundedness, Björk’s voice languishes under the weight of foghorn clarinets until her resolve breaks out and beyond the surface: ‘I heed a call / out of victimhood / here I go now….’ With Fossora, Björk has once again tunnelled past despair and into a grander, more interconnected understanding of herself and the world.

Main image: Björk, Fossora, detail, 2022, album cover. Courtesy: Vidar Logi

Harry Tafoya is an arts and music writer based in New York City.