Björk – ‘Fossora’ review: heavier – and more hopeful – than anything before

The Icelandic icon's lockdown album was produced in a period of isolation and grief, but her tenth record retains its warmth and accessibility

What goes up must come down, but maybe you don’t need to fear the fall. Björk’s last album, 2017’s ‘Utopia’, was borne aloft by the thermals of optimism, activism, flutes and birdsong; its feathery, loose structures were suffused with light. Her 10th, in her customary action-and-reaction style, burrows deep into dank earth, anchoring itself in family, homeland, and the body.

As such, ‘Fossora’s soundworld is stronger, starker, heavier: the fast, hard beats of Indonesian duo Gabber Modus Operandi are meshed with Björk’s own brand of tectonic techno, festooned in the percussive, playful flourishing of bass clarinets courtesy of Icelandic sextet Murmuri. Crafted in Iceland as she reconnected with it during lockdown, there’s a deep well of energy fuelling ‘Fossora’, reminiscent of the marching vigour of Volta or the more explosive parts of ‘Biophilia’. In ‘Trolla-Gabba’ – seemingly a play on words, also meaning “troll hoax” in Icelandic – ghostly pitch-shifted voices cavort around a hammering and pounding in the deep, a sort of grotto techno, while on the title track, the staccato clarinets and oboe pop in and out of the barrage of beats like woodwind whack-a-mole, as Björk celebrates the female, fungal resilience at the heart of this album (‘Fossora’ is a feminisation of the Latin word for “digger”): a setting-down of enmeshing mycelial roots and spores which transform the world around them, encouraging connection and growth: “Dissolves old pain dug down to rot/Decomposes debris/Degrades sorrows.”

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And there is a heavy loss to work through: two songs pay tribute to Björk’s mother, Hildur Rúna Hauksdóttir, who died in 2018. ‘Sorrowful Soil’, written during her last illness, is described as a eulogy: a hymnal, psalmic song, with swelling and surging voices of the Hamrahlíðarkórinn, Björk’s childhood choir, a comforting crowd of psychopomps. “You did your best, you did well,” she assures her mother, heartbreakingly.

‘Ancestress’, meanwhile, is described as an “epitaph”, the musical part of an alternative funeral ritual performed through symbol, dance and costume in its accompanying video, filmed on the land where her mother used to pick herbs. Amid percussion that conjures the singing bowls Hauksdóttir used to play, supported by the voice of her son Sindri and sweepingly romantic strings, Björk recalls her mother’s last moments: “The machine of her breathed all night/while she rested/Revealed her resilience/And then… it didn’t” . There is a dizzying pause, her words ringing into empty space, before her voice is picked up once more by the procession of bells and strings. It’s breath-holdingly beautiful and powerful.

Björk has been clear, however, that this is not a grief album; 2015’s ‘Vulnicura’ (and even parts of ‘Utopia’) were already so heavily soaked in sorrow. ‘Fossora’ is instead an album of processing and progressing, taking the lofty ideals of ‘Utopia’ and stress-testing them in the nitty-gritty. On its closing track, ‘Her Mother’s House’, she and her daughter Ísadóra Bjarkardóttir Barney reflect on the pain and pride of nest-leaving, with a flourish of cor anglais and a gentle grace in letting go: “The more I love you/The stronger you become/The less you need me.”

In ‘Victimhood’, she scolds herself for wallowing too long in martyrdom after her split from Ísadóra’s father Matthew Barney (“holier than thou… it erased my shadow”), self-flagellating with abyssal bass and grating beats. In ‘Atopos’, meaning ‘the other’, she urges commonality and compromise over endless conflict: “to only name the flaws/Are excuses to not connect… to insist on absolute justice at all times/Blocks connection”. The grandmother’s footsteps-ish, stop-start folk-dance of the beat and wavering eruptions of woodwinds and synths remind us that progress is uneven and uncertain, but that hope, as she sings, “is a muscle”. The song ends in a relentless pummeling, a breaking down of resistance.

As well as revived hope, there’s new love to be found in ‘Fossora’s depths, in the crush-drunk soft fanfares and eerie plucked strings of ‘Ovule’ and ‘Freefall’. The gentle grace of Allow recalls the tender eroticism of ‘Vespertine’, with soft layers of flute and desire-heavy, breathy vocals; the voice of Norwegian jazz singer Emilie Nicolas blends beautifully into the soft sensuality. Fungal City is dizzy with lust: “His body calligraphy the space above my bed/Horizontal signature on my skin/I’m in rapture/Perfumed velvet darkness.” The song climaxes twice, fading and returning in force with biomechanical beats and busy woodwinds as Serpentwithfeet adds his rapturous, soulful blessing.

An album of reinfatuation and reaffirmation, ‘Fossora’ is invigorating in its drive, if there’s little of real surprise here; hard as the mushroom-gabber beats are, if you’ve heard Pluto or Mutual Core, you won’t be shocked. And pop has, to an extent, caught up with Björk a little; to those raised on Blackpink, hyperpop and trap, ‘Fossora’ would hardly be so scary. That’s a good thing – perhaps, as Björk mused in a recent interview, the world really is now ready for “matriarch music”. On this form, she sounds like she’s ready to reap her dues and lead the charge.

Details

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Bjork

  • Release date: September 30, 2022
  • Record label: One Little Independent
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