“Matriarch music” is how Bjork defined her work earlier this month. Appropriate, then, that the Icelandic experimentalist’s 10th album, Fossora, opens with a pounding, ritualistic tribute to her late mother (“atopos”) and ends with a stunningly tender hymn to her nest-flying daughter (“her mother’s house”). On the weird and winding journey between those two points, the record gets difficult, funny, soothing, quarrelsome, giddy, sad and wild. It’s a frank, loving reflection on the relationships between these three generations of women.
Fossora is also mushroom music. The album title is a feminised word for miner or digger, and its lyrical language taps into themes of deep-rooted connectivity and bursts of fleshy fruition. Grief is diffused into the atmosphere like “spores” on the title track, love is “a sunken mystery… bursting through the moss” on “Fungal City”. Bjork sings of how “mud-dense” motherhood “anchors our darks” on “ovule”. On “allow”, hope is “a primordial plant”.
The mood is conciliatory. “Are these just excuses to not connect?” she repeats throughout Atopos. At a time when friends and families are divided, she stands against the puritanism of cancel culture “to insist on absolute justice at all times/ blocks connection.” So although this is clearly woman-made music, there is a constant reaching out to men. On the beautiful “Fungal City”, her often urgent, demanding voice is joined by the deeper, more resonant and classical vocal of New York’s serpentwithfeet. Over quirkily plucked pizzicato strings (which sound like they were scored to soundtrack one of the more comical scenes in a nature documentary) the pair sing of a mother’s devotion to her son: “Should I soften the blow of life for him?/ Cottonwool cocoon him?” Flipping tired gender stereotypes, the song celebrates the woman’s strength and the man’s “enormous capacity for love”. As the track swells, so do the big, crunchy, boot-stomping percussion.
Bjork cultivates her fungal sound with the earthy churn of beats inspired by drums buried in the ground (a project inspired by collaborators Gabber Modus Operandi). The woody stems of a bass clarinet sextet (who she apparently told to imagine they’d drunk “one and a half glasses of wine – not more” at a Scandinavian jazz bar in 2050) and delicate translucent parasols of harp and vocal harmony.
She has always seen human bodies as instruments. So here, voices are simply part of the woodwind section. It’s a technique that’s most apparent on “her mother’s house”, where you can feel every gentle exhalation from the nest of bass clarinets as Bjork’s daughter’s voice flutes and flutters skyward. “The more I love you/ the stronger you become/ the less you need me,” sighs the mother (with a degree of self-mockery). “You sew me together/ and send me off,” replies the daughter. The tension between their conflicting needs is carefully resolved into gratitude.
“Yes, yes, but are there TUNES?” those resistant to the wayward melodic charms of Noughties Bjork might ask. Yes, there are. They’re probably not obvious enough to convert the inflexibly weird-wary. Song patterns evolve slowly – none of this material will be bopping its way onto drive-time radio any time soon. But despite the occasional challenge of big blasts of (gleefully disruptive) discord on tracks such as “trolle-gabba”, those considering dipping a toe into avant garde pop will find the waters are warm on Fossora. Give it time – it’ll grow on you. Like a fungus.