No way around it: “Fossora,” Björk’s 10th studio album, can be heavy going, thorny and intense. But it’s well worth an effort.
“Fossora” continues the songwriter, producer and multimedia visionary’s lifelong project of linking personal experience to larger natural and cosmic processes — to place herself in the universe and the universe within herself. It arrives five years after “Utopia,” a determinedly airy album featuring the sounds of birds and flutes. “Utopia” was a deliberate, gravity-defying rebound and contrast to Björk’s wounded, heartsick, string-laden 2015 album, “Vulnicura,” and “Fossora” is yet another self-conscious change of elemental direction.
“Fossora,” derived from the Latin for “digger,” prizes earthiness: the fleshy physicality of life and death, pleasure and suffering, romantic and parental love. To ground the music, Björk’s new tracks often feature low-register instruments like bass clarinets and trombones (though flutes also reappear).
Björk’s production and arrangements on “Fossora” present her at her most unapologetically abstruse: closer to contemporary chamber music than to pop, rock or dance music. Her melodies, as always, are bold, declarative, and delivered with passion and suspense. But on “Fossora,” Björk doesn’t necessarily center those melodies as the hooks they could be. And while she collaborates on some tracks with the Indonesian electronic producers Gabber Modus Operandi, she’s not aiming for dance-floor beats.
In her new songs, the tempos often fluctuate organically, like breathing. And more than ever, Björk places her voice within a teeming musical ecosystem that’s likely to include a tangle of instrumental polyphony and layered vocals, with every element of the mix insisting on multiplicity.
The songs on “Fossora” encompass mourning, self-assessment and hard-won connection and renewal. “Obstacles are just teaching us/So we can just merge even deeper,” Björk declares in “Ovule,” a stately, trombone-weighted consideration of personal and digital togetherness.
For much of the album, Björk, 56, contemplates the 2018 death of her mother, Hildur Rúna Hauksdóttir, and her own generational roles as a child and a mother. (Björk’s children, Sindri and Isadora, appear among the album’s backing vocals.) In “Sorrowful Soil,” Björk summons overlapping, antiphonal choirs for a prismatic yet coolly scientific consideration of motherhood: “In a woman’s life she gets 400 eggs but only two or three nests.” It’s followed by “Ancestress,” with gamelan-like gongs and a string ensemble shadowing Björk’s vocal lines as she recalls moments of her mother’s life and death: “The machine of her breathed all night while she rested/and then it didn’t.”
But the album also recognizes obstinate, essential life forces: love, hope and — as a biological analogue — subterranean fungal growth. The album’s graphics and the video for its opening song, “Atopos” (from the Greek for “out of place” or “unusual”), are full of mushroom imagery, and the title song of “Fossora” — an unlikely merger of neoclassical Stravinsky-like woodwinds, ricocheting vocals and sporadic and then brutal electronic thumps — boasts, “For millions of years we’ve been ejecting our spores.” In a song titled “Fungal City,” amid tendrils of clarinet countermelodies and pizzicato strings, Björk exults in a new romance, singing, “His vibrant optimism happens to be my faith too.”
That optimism is by no means naïve. In “Victimhood,” the album’s darkest sonorities — six bass clarinets huffing and growling their lowest tones over an impassive ticktock beat — accompany and nearly engulf Björk’s vocals as she struggles with shattered expectations and longs for perspective: “I took one for the team/I sacrificed myself to safe us,” she sings. But she’s trying to “heed a call out of victimhood,” and she finds it as the song ends. Then celebratory flutes greet her in “Allow,” a paean to nurturing as healing: “Allow allow allow you to grow,” she sings. “Allow me to grow.”
The album concludes with “Her Mother’s House,” an abstract near-lullaby that envisions children’s rooms as chambers of a mother’s heart. It intertwines the multitracked voices of Björk and her daughter, singing, “The more I love you, the better you will survive.” They find an evolutionary purpose in an emotional bond.
“Fossora” doesn’t aim to be a crowd-pleaser. It’s hard to imagine these studio phantasms onstage (though Björk may well find a way). But Björk’s interior worlds are vast.
(One Little Independent)