A Guide to Getting into Björk’s New Album ‘Fossora’

For someone who makes pop music, Björk can be a remarkably difficult artist to listen to. The Icelandic singer, one of the most important musicians of the last 30 years or so, writes songs that eschew “structure” and “melody” in favor of “whatever Björk wants”. Listening to your music can sometimes feel like an endurance exercise.

Given her opposition to good-sounding sounds (not a value judgement), it’s hard to imagine Björk as a pop artist, given that “pop” was, at least at one point, an abbreviation of the word “popular.” In the book of the critic Kelefa Sanneh Major Labels: A History of Popular Music in Seven Genres, it appears twice: in a section about electronic dance music and in a section about singer-songwriters, nowhere in the pop chapter. “Björk from Iceland left her band Sugarcubes to create amazing mini-symphonies that are all hers,” he says of her work. “Stupefying mini symphonies” is correct, but it sounds like homework to listen to. Also, Björk doesn’t see himself that way. “I’m a pop musician and I make music for everyone, not for VIPs or educated people,” she said in a documentary about the making of her album homogeneous.

Fossora, their latest project, doesn’t sound like most “pop music” in recent years. It is based on bass clarinet and mushrooms, with a Latin title – ‘fossora’ is an intentionally false feminization of the word ‘fossor’, meaning excavator. Esoteric? Maybe, but not without intention. Fossora is not just a title but a command, forcing the listener to dig into the album instead of just listening. It’s a big challenge, but Björk’s archive is the kind that justifies this kind of work. So with Björk’s claim that she’s on everyone’s mind, here’s a guide for those interested to get into it Fossora (if you don’t get Björk yet).

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Even as someone who’s a pop music fan first and everything else (American, writer, gay) second, Björk remained a near-impenetrable artist to me for much longer than her contemporaries. As I learned to love her work, the biggest factor in the change was a mindset shift. First, I’ve stopped expecting a revelation on first listen – even now, Björk’s music rarely hits me directly, instead creeping up on me until I can’t imagine life without it. Second, I stopped looking for a structure that wasn’t there and just lived in what Björk created.

This second point is perhaps strange to take at face value – until I heard Björk I wasn’t aware that when I listened to other music I was was sense of structure. Luckily, Björk came up with a perfect metaphor for the start of your Björk ening Fossora. The first track on the album – the entry, if you will – is titled “Atopos”.

The philosopher Hans-Georg Gadamar said when speaking about the atopon (from the same root as atopos, if you can believe it): “By this is actually meant ‘the placeless’, that which does not fall within the categories of expectation of our understanding fits, so what makes us suspicious.” This idea of ​​placelessness is a helpful tool when listening to Björk because it helps you free yourself from the need to find a footing. Finding a hook, sound or beat to groove to isn’t helpful because there will always feel like it could disappear or be subsumed by something more repulsive. So don’t look for a groove instead, just accept that the music has no footing.

If the Atopon is an oddly large concept to begin with, that’s fine. One thing Björk always has on hand to help you more easily immerse yourself in her world is stunning graphics. The lead single for Fossora was “Atopos”, another way in which it functions as an entry point into this era. The accompanying music video is suitably odd, filled with musicians wearing mushroom pants, a DJ wearing a mushroom hat, and Björk with a mushroom everything. For a song that uses silence so consciously, the video can be sensory overload. What I find most helpful when watching “Atopos” is to allow each element – the music, the image, the on-screen lyrics – to occupy the same space in my brain.

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“Atopos” is a song about connection and breaking down the barriers that would prevent it. The song itself follows that goal – in order to enjoy it you need to dispel preconceived notions about what pop music sounds like and what the music videos look like. This process, which Björk not only argues well but necessarily when she sings, “If my plant doesn’t reach you, there’s an internal erosion to all,” is aided by the sight of her dancing around in a furry green dress. It’s absurd, there’s no point in pretending it’s not, but once you’re past the absurd, you’ve moved to a place that allows for a more vulnerable listening experience – you can connect.

From here it pays to chart your own path. Instead of listening to the album in its entirety, which is still an overwhelming experience, find parts of it Fossora worth digging into.

One run of songs that might be of interest is the maternal duo “Sorrowful Soil” and “Ancestress.” Both are dedications to Björk’s mother, Hildur Rúna Hauksdóttir, who died in 2018. Written during her mother’s illness, “Sorrowful Soil” is a eulogy based on the typically Icelandic “patriarchal obituary” that seeks to find a “matriarchal obituary”. Björk narrated Pitchfork consistent with the titular feminization of a masculine Latin word. “Ancestress” was written after the death of her mother and is written in an Icelandic folk-style epitaph. Both in terms of the songs’ clear subject matter and Icelandic tradition, these two are a little less ‘placeless’ than the rest of the record, so if you’re looking for a solid foundation they could be a good place to start.

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But if it’s the sonic listlessness that puts you off, “Fungal City” might be a better place to spend your time. Although in many ways “Fungal City” is as sonically odd as anything else on Fossora, the song features Serpentwithfeet, an experimental artist with roots in neo-soul. His voice is different from Björk’s – while she cuts her syllables sharply, he provides a smooth legato with occasional melisma that sounds more like a version of pop familiar to a wide audience. Serpentwithfeet doesn’t make the song any more typical, but on “Fungal City” it spells out a tension between Björk and the outside world that normally only exists between Björk and a confused audience. If you lose yourself in Björk’s sound, serpentwithfeet could be your audience replacement.

With a Björk album, it helps to go in with signposts. Now that you’ve developed some things to look forward to, dig in Fossorafind themes of female reclamation, connection and love. When I first heard it, I found it difficult to process Fossora as a whole, but after repeated listening it has grown on me (like a mushroom), with specific lyrics, melodies and concepts that haunt me in my daily life. Björk may not be an easy artist, but she doesn’t dull herself with the intention of being undecipherable. Instead, she gets her audience to recalibrate their listening habits. To travel in their atopos you don’t have to be “VIP or educated”, you have to be willing to connect.

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