Ampersand

Digging through the muddiness of Björk’s latest release, ‘Fossora’

A strong sonic profile suffers from a lack of lyrical depth.

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Björk, born of the DIY punk scene, has released a doozy of a 10th studio album, which is analyzed here — for better and for worse — in its entirety. For better? The music, with huge thanks to her collaborators. For worse? The lyrics.

Since her time in the 1980s with the Sugarcubes, Björk has earned a name for herself through thoughtful lyrics, artful vocal interpretations and melodic abstractions. Her latest album, “Fossora,” mostly continues this trend while exploring themes including separation, motherhood and the #MeToo movement. In “Fossora,” Björk plays with the idea of fungi and gravity while molding her style with Gabber, a genre of hardcore techno originating in the Netherlands, to convey a sense of “landing,” like feet on the ground.

The opening track, featuring Kasimyn (the half of Indonesian electronic duo Gabber Modus Operandi that does not have sexual abuse allegations), begins with vocals that sound alternatingly closer and further away, as though they were traversing in time — a fleeting memory.

If my plant doesn’t reach towards you / There’s internal erosion towards all / Pursuing the light too hard is a form of hiding.

The clarinets echo in the background as though they were narrating an evil “Sesame Street” rhyme, a reminder that the plant reaching closest towards the sun has the darkest shadows under its petals. Perfectionism is always an overcompensation, erasing the flawed aspects of life that distinguish it from artificial reality. In the context of a relationship, it erases the quirks that you once loved in the face of hardship, something echoed later in the album with “Freefall” — a soft and intimate ballad about an aging relationship that highlights the scope of Björk’s vocal range.

More importantly, all you can make out is “hope is a mussel” or “hope is a muscle.” Whatever. If you contort your thoughts to match your perception of Björk’s, it nearly makes sense. Hope is the lifeform attachment reminding you that everything has value. Or, it is literally a muscle, something exercised tirelessly in the depths of a difficult relationship that only grows stronger as things digress. All of which is very apparent in the skeletal and robotic beat that drives the song, like a zombified Jane Fonda working you to death.

The drum in “Ovule” goes “tsk tsk tsk” alongside ascendant, propulsive vocals. It’s telling Björk no, in comparison to lyrics that read as a digestion of emotions. The music is irreverent in its treatment of your expectations and notes never land where you expect.

The hostility a broken heart endures / the velocity of that injury is returned to the world / with the same grin showing teeth.

A lost relationship is eulogized in the face of a new beginning — its resulting child. In that child, the love that was once shared comes back to Björk with a similar face, but without all the ire.

Sometimes, it doesn’t make sense how you can love that face all over again. “Tsk tsk tsk.” But you do. And that love is so transcendent that it needs to be prioritized over everything that occurred in the past. Björk’s lyrics truthfully isolate one of the most conflicting aspects of being a parent in a household as “broken” as this tune’s rhythm.

“Mycella” and “Trolla-Gabba” (also featuring Kasimyn) both feature texturally contrasting wordless harmonic choruses over instrumental – audible renditions of the asexual growth of sporing fungi. Systematically repetitive beats mimic the organization of fungi and musculature, while reiterating both as synonyms of new beginnings from decomposition.

The content of “Sorrowful Soil” leaves it as the most underwhelming cut on “Fossora,” wrought with half-baked analysis of motherhood. Sonically it’s lacking too, with boring instrumentation and vocalization that does little to highlight Björk’s strengths.

“Ancestress” is a seven minute long play that tells the story of Björk’s mother’s death and features vocals by Björk’s son, Sindri Eldon. The song’s title itself places a strange sort of distance between Björk and her mother — rarely do people refer to their parents as their ancestors — something reflected again by the song. The clicky drum machines, with disjointed melodies, want to tell a more powerful story than they do. There’s that distance again — a desire by the author to be closer with their subject than they are. It makes the whole runtime feel like a show.

The song is beautifully composed, but packs more of a self-congratulatory fist bump than a punch:

She had idiosyncratic sense of rhythm / Dyslexia, the ultimate freeform / She invents words and adds syllables / Hand-writing, language all her own

These lyrics read as somewhat silly when separated from her trademark throaty delivery and distinctive Icelandic accent, something that distracted from the clarity offered by the song’s production.

A moment of haunting peace is offered by the somber melodies of “Fagurt Er í Fjörum,” before the scariest idea conjured by this album – even beyond being devoured by fungi – is introduced. “Victimhood” starts off strong, with deep woodwinds on top of a simple tapping meter and industrial horn. It’s potentially a landmark in the generally apolitical Björk’s public stance. With the context of #MeToo looming over this album, and no other tracks feeling as relevant, “Victimhood” is a hard pill to swallow.

It’s also a pretty cool song that is supported by a capella cries that underscore the helplessness of its subject matter as they’re swallowed up by ominous clarinets and a Gabber beat. The song begins with:

Victimhood / Has a saintly glow / Holier than thou / It erased my shadow(shadow) / Only bird’s eye view / Can help me / Transcend this archetype

But it strikes as a tad victim-blamey. It’s a projection onto other victims who aren’t as strong as the author sees herself, who are, in her eyes, actively choosing to remain victims. It’s a criticism of victims that only someone who has been victimized could make, begging the weaker person to try and imagine more important issues than their trauma. It is another opinion without nuance that hides behind an interesting concept.

“Allow,” while beautiful, does not match the rest of the album conceptually, instrumentally or lyrically. Probably because it was originally created for Björk’s previous album “Utopia” (2017). It features Emilie Nicolas. Moving on…

You heard it here first — in God’s year, 2022, Björk made fungus sexy. She really captures the sensuality of mycelium in “Fungal City,” which features the experimental musician known as serpentwithfeet. Björk’s audio-filtered moans, coupled with lightly-plucked strings, conjure up the spirit of a dance. This progresses into a moment of carnivorous madness before settling into a demure yet climactic duet. And the lyrics are blushworthy.

I could see the eponymous “Fossora” (also featuring Kasimyn) in a dramatic, all-female, off-Broadway rendition of Louis Sachar’s “Holes.” It’s a highlight of the album, but feels out of place on the tracklist. There’s a sense of whiplash as a listener coming from “Freefall,” a pleasant ditty about falling/being in love. The lyrics call to mind legions of women digging away and planting their roots for generations to come, but are almost sidelined by a kick that hits a thousand times, like shovels cracking the crust of the earth. It’s the sonic portrayal of realizing how badass all of your female ancestors are. This song has what’s missing from others reconciling Björk’s relationship with motherhood. Mothers might just be like the Medusa. You can’t face them dead on, lest you be turned to stone.

Finally, “Her Mother’s House,” featuring vocals by Björk’s daughter, Ísadóra Bjarkardóttir Barney, unifies the album’s themes by harkening back to “Ovule” and asking the listener to think of what’s next: “undo undo undo undo” generational trauma. There isn’t much in the way of analysis, but the emotive tenderness allows for forgiveness from listeners.

Altogether, the songs about Björk’s relationship with her mother tell a beautiful story, but individually fall flat when it comes to “digging deeper.” “Fossora” is the kind of album that is dampened by its context. Still, Björk continues to excel in her conceptual worldbuilding through instrumentation, with a big help from Kasimyn, who elevates the album’s best songs. The extent of thought and imagination put into the album make up for lyrics that occasionally dip into simplicity. It’s also singular in its kind. Björk is making music for a new generation of mothers, even if she isn’t completely sure how to do it.