It is far too easy to think of Björk as an artist from beyond our world. The Icelandic experimentalist and occasional pop star has been in the public eye for 40-odd years, first as a child star, then as a member of rock band The Sugarcubes, then as a musician, multimedia artist and actress under her own name. With each passing year, it feels as if the general populace treat Björk less as a transgressive, formally ambitious, publicly engaged but absolutely human musician and more as someone to contend with at arm’s length, as if each new record is the transmission from alien life we’ve been waiting for our whole lives.
There are undeniable positives to this approach – in many ways Björk’s latter-day output has been nigh on impossible to take on any terms but its own, although I reject the idea that any art must be evaluated in a vacuum, as some critics are increasingly wont to do when it comes to pop albums.
For the most part, however, I can’t help but feel as if treating Björk as a rarefied, walled-off artist does her a disservice. Although so much Björk idolatry stems from fandom, it can sometimes feel as if she has been relegated to museum piece or, at worst, freak-show attraction – someone to marvel at but not to genuinely engage with.
At the same time, this overly careful mode of discussing Björk leads many to wilfully ignore her obvious flaws, perhaps for fear of seeming curmudgeonly or unfashionable. And herein lies the problem with meaningfully critiquing Björk: to point out that her records are often patchy, or that her music tends to prioritise technical innovation over artistry, often leads to criticisms of anti-intellectualism or dismissal on the grounds of Björk being “weird” for the sake of weirdness.
Fossora, Björk’s latest album under her own name, feels like a course correction and a rejoinder: a challenge to anyone inadvertently pigeonholing Björk, whether that comes from a place of love or disdain. At once challenging and strange, embodied and accessible, Björk’s 10th record recaptures the kind of frictious, cheekily pugnacious spirit that typified her superlative mid-2000s output. At the same time, it is one of her most clearly personal records, perhaps even more so than 2015’s nakedly distraught breakup album Vulnicura, whose lyrics touched on the specifics of her split from artist Matthew Barney.
Deeply concerned with ideas of motherhood and legacy, themes inspired by both the coming of age of Björk’s daughter, Ísadóra, and the death of her mother, Hildur, Fossora feels like a testament to Björk’s skill as a worldbuilder and her unparalleled gift for bringing profoundly avant-garde ideas to the mainstream.
Fossora is built around techno and gabber beats and was produced in part with the experimental Indonesian gabber duo Gabber Modus Operandi. It features a six-piece bass clarinet orchestra as well as the kind of flute-heavy arrangements that typified 2017’s Utopia; in its fusion of skew-whiff, bass-heavy electronics with lush orchestral parts, it immediately identifies itself as a kind of wayward cousin of David Bowie’s Blackstar and Scott Walker’s Bish Bosch and Soused, avowedly “difficult” albums that took a kind of perverted, funhouse-mirror perspective on the trademarks of their famous creators. Fossora is a little less clean, a little less stately, than either of those albums: from its earliest moments, it gives off a rich, faecal pong, its atmosphere far more humid and swampier than any of Björk’s recent records. Her bushel of clarinets honk and skronk at odd times, like pistons firing in a steam engine, and intentionally so. More than ever, Björk’s music is working in time with her lyrics, acting as metaphor and illustration for her lyrics. Opening track “Atopos”, a clear tone-setter, plays like a double-time video of someone solving a Rubik’s Cube, clarinets and a bare-bones, disarmingly dry techno beat pushing furiously to find time with each other. Over the top, Björk sings transparently about cancel culture, or, at least, some kind of fractious impasse:
Are these not just excuses to not connect?
Our differences are irrelevant
To insist on absolute justice at all times
It blocks connection
As the song progresses, ratcheting up in speed and intensity, its two disparate parts – the organic and the harshly inorganic, the lung-powered and the profoundly mechanical – begin to coalesce into one furious, roiling beat. On a provided lyrics sheet, the couplet “We find our resonance / And we do connect” suggests a kind of woven link between music and lyrics.
These lyrics foreground an album that, in its most powerful moments, finds Björk trying to make peace: not just with her mother’s death and her new place as leader of her matrilineal line, but with uncouth or uninterrogated parts of her psyche. On “Sorrowful Soil” and “Ancestress” she charts lines between the women who came decades and centuries before and the woman she has to embody going forward.
The former, a song largely built from mournful, overlapping choral parts, sketches a cosmic view of motherhood that is both deeply symbolic and tauntingly palpable (“In a woman’s lifetime she gets 400 eggs but only two or three nests … This is emotional textile, self-sacrificial”). The latter song pays complex, heartbreaking tribute to Hildur in terms that feel bracingly intimate: “The doctors she despised placed a pacemaker in her,” she sings, countering lines about her “ancestress’s clock” with disarming details about her mother’s final days. These tracks, which move so deftly between personal, almost gory detail and zoomed-out vistas that feel akin to traditional folksong, encapsulate what makes Björk such a specific, celebrated lyricist, taking a moment and making it shatteringly universal.
These sensitive, remarkably open songs bristle against Fossora’s seamier side. “Victimhood”, perhaps the best song here, has the queasy, ominous atmosphere of a fantasy score: clarinets flood in from the edge of the frame like fog in a barren forest; a muffled, minimal metronome track – barely a beat as much as a discomfiting, ever-present joint crack – keeps uneasy time. In a discordant, incantatory tone, Björk sings about emotional suffering: “Rejection left a void that is never satisfied / Sunk into victimhood / Felt the world owed me love.” As with “Atopos”, “Victimhood” seems to obliquely nod towards culture war flashpoints, at the same time as it raises questions about the wounded, subjective artistic vantage that seemed to power Vulnicura. The profound empathy of Fossora – and the entirety of Björk’s catalogue, really – suggests that this is not a surface-level disquisition; instead, it feels like a profound reckoning with the modes of artmaking Björk has engaged with over the years, and the reasons she may have felt the need to switch gears so quickly from one distinct style to another around the middle of the previous decade. As with much of Fossora, there is a kind of shrewd meta-ness to “Victimhood”: if Björk herself invites interrogation of her own work, it feels much harder for fans or critics to treat her as an artist out of time or wilfully out of step with culture. If the most recent suite of Björk records says anything it is that although her more orchestral or conceptual music may feel girded, it is often anything but, open to influence and revealing to those willing to pick at its seams.
Unlike Vulnicura or Utopia, though, the landscape of Fossora contains more texture, more peaks and valleys. It is not purely heartbroken, like Vulnicura, or purely joyful, like Utopia; instead, it sits longer with uncategorisable loneliness and discomfort, ending on a note of wistful, unvarnished finality. “Her Mother’s House” acts as a farewell to both Hildur and Ísadóra, the latter of whom co-wrote the song with Björk. It’s a calm, painfully elegant choral-and-clarinet lament – a kind of eulogy to a memory, or to a vastly different life. After an album’s worth of superimposed pasts and futures, it feels like a narrative written from the twinned perspectives of Björk and Hildur, as well as the other matriarchs of their line. “When a mother wishes to have a house with space for each child / She is only describing the interior of her heart,” Björk sings, Ísadóra’s voice overlapping and harmonising with hers. It’s a simple, humble, totally staggering line – an expression of pure humanity, as far from alien as could be.
Fossora will be released on September 30.
EXHIBITION Neon Oracle: Hannah Brontë
UTS Gallery & Art Collection, Sydney, September 20–November 11
FESTIVAL The Big Anxiety, Melbourne Naarm
RMIT City Campus, Melbourne, September 21–October 15
THEATRE Past the Shallows
Peacock Theatre, Hobart, until September 24
VISUAL ART Kevin Robertson: Paintings 1984-2022
Lawrence Wilson Art Gallery, Perth, until December 10
EXHIBITION Cressida Campbell
National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, September 24–February 19
Playhouse, Brisbane, until September 17
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on September 17, 2022 as "Loving the alien".
For almost a decade, The Saturday Paper has published Australia’s leading writers and thinkers. We have pursued stories that are ignored elsewhere, covering them with sensitivity and depth. We have done this on refugee policy, on government integrity, on robo-debt, on aged care, on climate change, on the pandemic.
All our journalism is fiercely independent. It relies on the support of readers. By subscribing to The Saturday Paper, you are ensuring that we can continue to produce essential, issue-defining coverage, to dig out stories that take time, to doggedly hold to account politicians and the political class.
There are very few titles that have the freedom and the space to produce journalism like this. In a country with a concentration of media ownership unlike anything else in the world, it is vitally important. Your subscription helps make it possible.
Select your digital subscription