Since her 1993 debut, every Björk album has come with a concept, a theme that defines it against the rest of her discography, whether it’s the sublime sensuality of Vespertine, the entirely a cappella album Medúlla or the nature-inspired Biophilia with its accompanying apps.
Fossora is no exception. When the Icelandic musician announced her tenth studio album earlier this year she called it her ‘mushroom album’, an apt description of the record’s deep, earthy, bubbling textures and its thematic threads of connection, symbiosis and heritage, woven together like a tangle of underground roots.
‘Hope is a muscle / that allows us to connect,’ Björk sings on the album’s opening track, ‘Atopos’, melding the physical and the philosophical, dissolving any barrier between the body and the mind. While the nature on Biophilia was abstract, complex, even, at times, coldly scientific, Fossora’s living environment is immediate, tangible and bodily. ‘The warm, open wind on my skin, / primordial plant glistening with moisture, / with moisture directed at me, erupts, / my hair fossilised with salt and crust,’ Björk sings, enraptured, on ‘Allow’.
She might be about the only artist bold enough to make fungus romantic. But describing the mycelium, an underground network of fungal roots, she does just that. On ‘The Fungal City’, deep, throaty woodwinds burble and seethe like the lively, ever-shifting subterranean landscape, while sleek, silvery strings mimic the fine threads of the mycelium and of the delicate but powerful connection between two lovers.
Where Björk’s previous project, 2017’s Utopia was a loose, floating web of fluttering electronics, twinkling harp and featherweight flutes, Fossora relies on the gritty muscularity of the bass clarinet and the visceral rush of a string section. From the glorious, golden brass that opens ‘Ovule’ to the pizzicato raindrops scattered over ‘Freefall’, such orchestration has, aside from the mournful strings carving out 2015’s Vulnicura, rarely been so foundational and fully-fleshed on a Björk album.
‘Ancestress’ is cloaked in violins and studded with celestial clock chimes to give it a wondrous, almost fairy-tale elegance that hasn’t graced any Björk project since Vespertine. ‘Allow’, with its ethereal flutes and breathless sensuality also brings to mind her 2001 album, the otherworldly track is dusted with soft, rushing whispers and the heavenly vocals of Norwegian singer Emilie Nicolas.
Elsewhere, the album is more reminiscent of 2004’s Medúlla. ‘Fagurt Er í Fjörðum’, one of the several a cappella interludes on the track list, is adapted from an Icelandic folk song and is given a solemn, hymnal quality that echoes Medúlla’s many traditional influences, while ‘Sorrowful Soil’ is a beautiful, spiritual lament whose rich harmonies lend an ancient, folkloric warmth.
And the use of her country’s cultural heritage ties into Björk’s themes of intergenerational connection. Both ‘Ancestress’ and ‘Sorrowful Soil’ tell of Björk’s late mother’s declining health and eventual death, paying tribute to her ‘vibrant rebellion’. Meanwhile, the singer’s own children are featured alongside her for the first time, her son Sindri Eldon bolstering his mother’s voice on ‘Ancestress’, and her daughter Ísadóra Bjarkardóttir Barney providing silken, rippling backing vocals on closing track ‘Her Mother’s House’. ‘When a mother’s house,’ Björk sings on this winged, flighty lullaby, ‘has a room for each child / it’s only describing / the interior of her heart.’
And like the rooms of an ancestral home, Fossora is a lived-in space, reverberating with memories of the past and hope for the future. Ten albums in and Björk is showing no signs of running out of ideas.