A concept album about mushrooms? Only Björk could pull it off. That may be a facetious way of looking at Fossora, but there is an undoubted earthiness to the Icelandic musician’s 10th album. She has spoken of how this record is a “grounding” of sorts, both literally and figuratively. The follow-up to 2017′s Utopia — a record imbued with hopefulness and optimism after she had dredged the depths of heartache on 2015′s Vulnicura — is more than just a snappy soundbite about fungi, though. In fact, Fossora is one of Björk’s most personal albums to date. Returning to Iceland to quarantine during the pandemic — having lost her mother and become a grandmother herself in recent years — the 56-year-old’s worldview has subsequently altered in recent times.
Fossora acknowledges Björk’s past, but similarly looks to the present and anticipates the future. Two songs written for her mother, Hildur Rúna, anchor this record. The “eulogy” that is Sorrowful Soil is startling, with its waterfall of elegiac voices courtesy of Reykjavik’s Hamrahlíd Choir, and Björk’s moving refrain that insists, “You did well, you did your best”. The “epitaph” that is Ancestress is one of her most affecting songs to date, a tremulous, string-laden affair that incorporates her son Sindri on vocals. She recounts her mother’s final days in poignant detail (“My ancestress’s clock is ticking/ Her once-vibrant rebellion is fading/ I am her housekeeper, I make sure there is hope at all times”).
Elsewhere, there are love songs. Ovule celebrates her unnamed lover’s “romantic intelligence, sensual tenderness” and Fungal City his “vibrant optimism”, while Freefall is the antithesis of a “baby-baby-baby” tune. “Every time we kiss, share songs and films/ Hike mountains and beaches/ Our joined presence takes form,” she croons in her trademark idiosyncratic, clipped tones. Victimhood, meanwhile, is an acceptance of her own failings. “Sunk into victimhood,” she sings, “Felt the world owed me love,” while Her Mother’s House, featuring her 19-year-old daughter Ísadóra, is a bittersweet paean to her children: “The more I love you, the stronger you become and the less you need me.”
Musically, this is as wonderfully eccentric as you might expect. Björk uses instrumentation in an elemental way, unlike any other musician: the creeping, ominous clarinet of Victimhood; the woodwind that wheezes and gasps like a wounded animal against the off-kilter rhythm of Atopos; the flutes that provide a breezy optimism against the soft heartbeat thud of Allow. Collaborators include Indonesian dance duo Gabber Modus Operandi and experimental musician Serpentwithfeet, but this could never be mistaken for the work of anyone other than Björk. With an album that shifts and expands with every listen, she remains as effortlessly, uncompromisingly original as ever.