Mushrooms are multi-faceted, indiscernible entities: they can be poisonous or delicious; portals to psychedelic trips or that extra garnish upon the omelette. Perhaps – most importantly – they are a polarising organism, something with too many dimensions to be perceived with ambivalence. It is no doubt their fascinating complexities that have allowed them the honour of being the source of inspiration for Icelandic auteur Björk on her 10th studio album, Fossora.
It is difficult to affix the label ‘special’ to such an artist’s work, as when it comes to Björk’s discography, it’s like arguing which ingot of gold sparkles brighter than the rest. However, there is something about this project, which digs deep into the soil of grief, isolation and motherhood, that expands her already considerable artistic capabilities. It sounds glorious.
Fantastical and tender, confrontational and soothing, Fossora feels like an amalgamation of many past albums to create something that’s both familiar yet adventurous to her devoted listeners. Some string work reminiscent of Homogenic interspersed here; some hard-hitting electronic beats reminiscent of Volta there, for example. For those expecting the quarantine club album she alluded to in a past interview, nothing is ever quite as straightforward when it comes to her music, nor can it be summarised so succinctly. Instead, this album feels like a new Björk entirely strengthened by her artistic legacy, processing a world permanently altered by an epidemic, the loss of family, and the various forms of connection, with a steadfast gaze that is nonetheless unafraid to let the tears fall if she so desires.
A gloomy clarinet sextet and clattering undercurrent pervade the ominous lead single and album opener “Atopos”, which has Björk philosophising and somewhat condemning the isolationist tendencies of human beings; “Are these not just excuses / For us not to connect?” Simultaneously playful and grimly serious, Björk isn’t afraid to condemn the division people are experiencing worldwide ideologically, geographically and situationally. “If we do not grow outwards towards love / We will implode inwards towards destruction,” she bluntly sings before the song progresses into a jarring confabulation of drawling clarinet and jackhammering beats which invokes a manic cult-like energy of multiple people jumping in place, attempting to stomp themselves deeper into the ground.
Connection is again broached on the off-kilter “Ovule”, which finds her contemplating the subject from a different angle: internet personification. Over a repetitive horn melody that is spontaneously twisted, Björk details “An oval ovule / In a dark blood red void / Carries our digital selves / Embracing and kissing.” This track is undoubtedly a COVID response, showing the eclipsing of our real world and internet identities, merging into one entity out of necessity. Frankly, it is a weird track, but one that shows her wisdom and faith in technology and togetherness. If “Atopos” was the lament of us staying separate, “Ovule” is the belief that we aren’t designed to stay separate for long.
Those two opening tracks, while great, don’t necessarily indicate just how deep this album’s thematic material is. Things start to become a lot more contemplative from “Sorrowful Soil” onwards. The track is a wondrous choral lament instilling the vocal-driven sound of Medulla with an almost gospel flair. Björk considers the darker side of motherhood (“In a woman’s lifetime / She gets four hundred eggs / But only two or three nests”) and attempts to reconcile potential mistakes made during the process. “Nihilist happening / Cut through this nihilist happening / You didn’t well / You, you did your best,” she pleads, outlining how the struggle of being a mother is worrying that you haven’t done enough. It serves as a prologue to what proves to be the album’s centre of gravity upon which its entire axis turns: “Ancestress”.
At once grief-stricken and life-affirming, “Ancestress” is an epic eulogy to her mother featuring vocal work from her son Sindri. Beginning with an echoing gong, prominent glockenspiel and lush strings, the song slowly unfurls into a sonorous tapestry that characterises and immortalises her mother. “My ancestress’ clock is ticking / Her once vibrant rebellion is fading,” she laments over plucked strings with distorted harmonies from her son adding a ghostly dimension to the track. Delving into irony (“The doctors she despised / Placed a pacemaker inside her”); specific characterisation (“She had idiosyncratic sense of rhythm / Dyslexia, the ultimate free form”); and even sources of tension (“Did you punish us for leaving? / Are you sure we hurt you? / Was it just no living?”); this song is intensely personal and affecting; painting a loving and realistic portrait of this central figure in Björk’s life.
The most shattering moment on “Ancestress” is when it dives into a pocket of musical silence and Björk’s pain over the loss is emphasised as she sings emphatically and entirely alone: “The machine of her breathed all night / While she rested / Revealed her resilience / And then it didn’t.” With its interjections of clattering drums, this cinematic centrepiece feels like a hark back to the classical-electronic sound on Homogenic, albeit still unique to the specific universe of this album. This song cannot fail to leave one short of breath at its beauty; at how it characterises her mother so intimately that the listener feels slightly intrusive. It is a masterpiece and one that she bravely released for the entire world to hear.
Occasionally, a proper darkness makes itself known on Fossora, most notably on the ominous “Victimhood” – an intermeshing of churning synth tones, metronomic beats and moody vocal work. Self-admonishing and agonising, Björk perches on the lip of the void and “heed[s] the call / To get out of victimhood.” A subversive and twisted inspirational song about looking inward and facing the pains directly in order to transcend them, this track feels like Björk is bloodily scratching at the somewhat-healed wounds of Vulincura: “I sacrificed myself to save us / I rejected myself / I felt sorry for myself”. As such, it is the album’s most harrowing offering despite its ironically positive message.
Another instance of the instrumentation and production providing a contrast to the lyrical message is the intriguing “Freefall”. There is something oddly theatrical about this track despite its minimalism, as if Björk is delivering the penultimate solo number upon a dimly lit stage, transfixing the audience with her captivating vocal delivery. Consisting mainly of multi-layered strings, Bjork sings a cautionary tale of unconditional love: “If we cling to what we used to be / It will burn our soul / We will get hurt / Unless there is absolute trust.” The track gains body around the halfway point where plucked strings become emphasised, as if she is frantically spinning and weaving a spell. This track feels like the dark horse of the album – a track that doesn’t quite feel ‘accessible’ (yes, even by Björkian standards) but is unforgettable in its ominous beauty.
With darkness occasionally abounding, Fossora’s highlights prove the warmest offerings that are both whimsical and fantastical. It seems ironic that one of the best tracks on this album is a Utopia outtake, but from the moment “Allow” begins with its euphoric woodwinds, it is a moment of absolute rapture and transportation that one can only be thankful the track got released. Featuring vocals by Norwegian artist Emilie Nicholas, whose vocal tone contributes massively to the song’s magical beauty, an alternative universe is created: “I look up at the treetops / I will braid those twigs together / Create a cathedral ceiling above me / How I long to float there midair.” Through its abject fantasy elements, this track has a similar message to Verspertine highlight “It’s Not Up To You”, albeit with the dial twisted to its most deliciously imaginative: Björk surrenders to the external forces in her environment in order to find peace. If listeners surrender to the forces of this song, they will also find peace – at least for its runtime.
The counterpart to this portrait of an alternative universe is “Fungal City”, which feels like the beginning of a life-changing adventure. Featuring goosebump-inducing production of strings, clarinets and an appearance from those sudden hammering beats, this yet again is a callback to the Homogenic days of yore with a mischievous gleam. Similar to “Allow”, Björk utilises elements of fantasy to frame some more personal dilemmas: “Fungal city subterranean / Curve the first floor / We walk on this sunken mystery / Trunks bursting through the moss from.” With additional vocal work by the acrobatically soulful serpentwithfeet, Björk finds herself both mystified and cautious by the beauty of the world, particularly when it comes to the next generation. “Should I soften the blow of life on him?” she asks, aware that innocence is something that can be crushed in a moment. However, there is the sense that Björk is more optimistic than she is willing to let on; that despite the hurt that life lashes upon us, there is still whimsy to be discovered.
The album’s finale titled “Her Mother’s House” is an excellent conclusion to an excellent album that features her daughter Ísadóra (whose vocals warrant particular attention for their beauty). For all the fantastical diversions, it is important that the album ends this way: an ode to unconditional love and motherhood. “The more I love you / The better you will survive,” she sings plaintively. Attuned to both pathos and graciousness, the stripped-back soundscape is painted with ghostly vocal samples and serene clarinet to create a haunting yet sweet conclusion. This feels like Björk’s assurance to her children that she is their mother and as such, always carries them with her: “A mother’s house / Has a room for each child / It’s only describing the interior / Of her heart.”
Fossora is an incredible and vulnerable project that refuses any easy categorisation. Björk’s dives into sonic obfuscation have never once eclipsed her refusal to be anything except open-hearted and honest. Her power is in how she allows herself to feel and let these emotions guide her artistic expression. Yes, she is the woman who hybridised into a blue bear; yes, she is the woman who transported us to an alien planet of fauna and flutes; it doesn’t matter how fantastical the art or how otherworldly she seems, she has always remained inseparable from raw humanity.