How to Listen to Björk, According to Björk

Atlantic, 30 septembre 2022

The Icelandic artist breaks down her powerful new album, Fossora.

One common way of viewing Björk’s career is as a long descent into the bizarre. After the eclectic earworms of her first three solo albums (Debut in 1993, Post in 1995, and Homogenic in 1997), she moved through surprising phases, ranging from soft murmuring (2001’s Vespertine) to splattering noise (2017’s Utopia). These days, her work can seem less like pop than, as The Guardian’s Chal Ravens recently put it, “surreal opera.”

Björk doesn’t think in these terms. When I met with the 56-year-old musician in Iceland for The Atlantic’s recent profile of her, she expressed mystification at people who say her ’90s stuff was more fun. “Maybe they remember themselves in some club doing ecstasy and there were three remixes in a row,” she said. “Overall, the BPM, or the amount of chill, or the amount of experimental, or the amount of pop sugar, or the amount of self-reflective, serious moments—I think it’s actually sort of been the same throughout my albums.”

That interpretation makes some sense once you’ve tuned your ears to Björk’s frequency and absorbed her intentions. Fossora, her tenth solo album (out today), certainly takes some getting used to. That’s not just because it features clarinets, brass, and strings juxtaposed with the stormy electronic dance style known as gabber. Björk’s defining instrument, her voice, remains a challenge—and a wonder. She wails and exhales in meters and melodies of unpredictable shape. But, and this is crucial, they do have a shape.

Created over five years in Iceland, Fossora reveals itself, with repeated listens, as warm, satisfying, and even addictive : an invitation to stomp around and sing along. Part singer-songwriter memoir, part philosophical treatise, and part danceable adventure, it ranks among her most rewarding works. In Iceland, we discussed most of the album’s songs, which are dissected below.

1. “Atopos”

A high-drama protest song that eventually explodes into a rave, the opening track is designed to, as Björk illustrates in the music video, get people pumping their fists. Written during Donald Trump’s presidency, Björk’s lyrics preach about the psychology of moderation and compromise. Extremism—“pursuing the light too hard,” she sings—doesn’t just prevent unity. It is also, the lyrics say, “a form of hiding” : a defense mechanism, an avoidance of intimacy.

On a yet-deeper level, the song distills what makes Björk’s music unique. Philosophers use the term atopos to refer to something “unclassifiable, of a ceaselessly unforeseen originality,” as Roland Barthes wrote in the book that informed this song. Trying to honor the shared ineffability of life—the way that we all have our individuality in common—is a means of creating connection. It also leads to utterly distinct art. “Each song is a coordinate, an emotional coordinate,” Björk told me. “Several things are on that coordinate. Some of it is personal, some of it is universal, some of it is me, some of it is my friends. It’s all of it, in one.”

2. “Ovule”

The strangest and best song on Fossora is built around a trickily timed beat that braids brass, vocal wisps, and a trap-ish low end. The musical wobbling reflects Björk’s lyrics about love being a balancing act—one that life has taught her how to perform. After a stark passage about “deadly, demonic divorces,” the song’s push and pull seems to resolve into a feeling of rebirth : the possibility of an ovule.

“In a way, it’s a sibling to ‘Atopos,’” Björk said. “‘Ovule’ is the feminine, open, loving, forgiving, unconditional, zero, no baggage, sensual, erotic. And ‘Atopos’ is … the masculine, the baggage, the problematic. I have to give it to both songs, though : The second half of them, there is a transformation in the middle, and they come out the other end.”

3. “Mycelia”

An interlude woven of Björk’s chopped-up vocals, “Mycelia” is named for the rootlike networks created by mushrooms. It also evokes feminine work of crafting and connecting. “I used to do a lot of knitting and sewing and crocheting, especially as a kid,” she said. “I think a lot of my editing on my laptop comes from that. It almost becomes a meditation.”

4. “Sorrowful Soil”

Of the two songs on the album addressing the death of Björk’s mother in 2018, the hymnlike “Sorrowful Soil” is the sadder one, capturing the moment when Björk and her brother began to realize there wasn’t much time left for their ailing parent. The lyrics, written in a stream of consciousness, present what she called a “biological obituary” of her mom. “In a woman’s lifetime / she gets 400 eggs / But only two or three nests,” goes one line. Björk explained, “You look at a girl, they’re one day old, and they have 400 eggs inside of them. It’s really exciting. And two of them became children.”

The intricate way that Björk’s voice twines with Iceland’s famous Hamrahlíð Choir, which Björk sang in when she was a child, calls to mind a flickering bulb. Perhaps that is because the choir’s longtime conductor, Þorgerður Ingólfsdóttir, “absolutely insists that every single person in the room, emotionally, goes to the light,” Björk said. “So after a choir session, everyone is euphoric.”

5. “Ancestress”

With gong, bells, and strings, “Ancestress” ritualistically honors Björk’s mother’s life—though it has its wrenching moments, as well as hints of conflict between mother and daughter. “The balance between [‘Sorrowful Soil’ and ‘Ancestress’], one sad one and one celebration, it’s not a coincidence,” she said. “I’m nudging the volume and the weight on every color.”

At one point, the instruments fade away, and Björk sketches the moment of death : “The machine of her breathed all night / While she rested / Revealed her resilience / And then it didn’t.” The next verse is warm, almost relaxed, reflecting an epiphany she had : Living people have relationships ruled by ego, “but when they pass away, they become a spirit, and there’s no conflict. It’s element air, as opposed to element flesh.”

6. “Fagurt Er í Fjörðum”

A haunting keyboard line accompanies Björk’s recitation of words by Látra-Björg, an 18th-century fisherwoman who, according to myth, cast spells with her poems. The first verse celebrates the beauty of Iceland’s fjords ; the second one, translated, says that when the winter winds blow, “I know no worse place / In this worldly place : / Man and creature then die.”

Björk noted that although foreigners often associate nature with childhood and naivete, “in Iceland, it’s actually the other way around. Nature is really dangerous ; you could very easily die if you go in the wrong shoes, walk to the volcano, walk a glacier. It’s more the adult, mature people who take it on.”

7. “Victimhood”

A recent fascination with Carl Jung’s psychological theories led Björk to write this creepy epic about self-pity. She arranged “long bass notes” to feel “like slime in every footstep, going kilometers down,” fitting the sense of misery she sings about. The calming choral coda represents the moment when you “find the solution, and you own your own victimhood,” she said. “If you call it its right name, it just”—she made a poof noise—“evaporates.”

Björk said she’d been fascinated by the way that the right-wing, conspiracy-minded movements rising in the West have been fueled by a feeling of persecution. Yet when I asked whether the politically charged idea of “victimhood culture” was on her mind when she was writing this song, she said no. But “we’ve all got a part of us that is a victim, and we have to own it,” she said.

8. “Allow”

Flutes dart about in this lovely leftover from the sessions for Björk’s previous album, Utopia, and Björk felt that the song fit on Fossora because of its percussive weight. With multiple scores by 12 flutists edited together, the Afrobeats-influenced “Allow” features “basically 60 flutes doing rhythmical patterns,” she said. She thought up the hopeful lyrics while hiking in the Caribbean. “It’s almost like yoga, sort of meditational—just me talking to myself to be in the moment,” she said.

9. “Fungal City”

The music of the children’s-book author Thorbjørn Egner—a Norwegian analogue to Dr. Seuss, Björk said—partly inspired the merry woodwinds on tracks such as “Fungal City.” But Björk wanted her sextet of clarinetists to do an “adult” and “erotic” take on that style befitting the intimacy of her lyrics : “His body calligraphs the space above my bed / Horizontal signatures on my skin.”

Such lyrics may make listeners curious about who she is dating, but Björk is keeping that info quiet. When she became a celebrity in the ’90s, “there were moments where I went with the flow and overshared. And I learned very quickly, nobody’s happy. The press, they don’t get what they want. You don’t get what you want. The person you love, they’re fucked up.” But now, “I’ve learned where I can be very, very vulnerable in sharing, like a lot of these lyrics already are,” she said. “But I choose the sentences well.”

“Fungal City” features the experimental soul singer Serpentwithfeet, who is an example of Björk’s influence on a rising class of queer artists. For LGBTQ listeners, she speculated, “there’s not a lot of mirrors you can see yourself in, especially in some societies. But then, when you see a matriarchal thing”—such as Björk’s music—“it’s probably reassuring.”

10. “Trölla-Gabba”

This giddy techno interlude, assisted by the Indonesian beatmaker Kasimyn, offers the listener “a little break, or sorbet,” Björk said.

11. “Freefall”

The dreamy strings of “Freefall,” recorded at an Icelandic church, remind Björk of Sigmund Freud smoking a pipe in the Alps. “It’s not a coincidence that Western civilization discovered psychology at the same time that string quartets became huge,” she said. “People who are in string quartets for, like, 30 years together [say] it’s like a marriage of four. It’s human communication in the most intense form, both positive and negative.”

That sense of almost-uncomfortable closeness complements Björk’s wish to “amalgamate” with another person—a long-running desire in her music. “Sometimes, when people think I’m convincing someone to merge [in a song], I’m actually talking to myself,” she said. “I’m saying, ‘Be more open.’” Trying to bond, she said, “really is the theme of our life, isn’t it ?”

12. “Fossora”

Fossora’s title track distills the album’s motifs—mushrooms, clarinets, slamming beats—into a raucous festival. “At last / We stayed / In one place long enough,” Björk gasps during the song’s absolutely bonkers closing section, acknowledging the period of pandemic-mandated stasis that inspired the album. Fossora is all about “shooting down roots and getting very cozy with your friends,” she said. “It is [a] celebration that all you need is in that hole.”

13. “Her Mother’s House”

The oboe-related instrument known as the cor anglais sighs throughout this gentle duet between Björk and her 19-year-old daughter, Ísadóra Bjarkardóttir Barney. The song—like, in a way, the earlier tracks about Björk’s mom—is an intergenerational farewell, though Ísadóra hasn’t actually left Björk’s life. “What I understand about U.S. culture is it’s such a rite of passage : 18 years old, the kid’s just gone,” Björk said. “In Iceland … it’s more like what you had 150 years ago, where the generations are hanging out together.”

Björk’s lyrics suggest that being protective and loving is a way of ensuring her child’s eventual independence. Then, in a verse Ísadóra wrote, her daughter describes a balloon covered with clay, still able to float : an image tying together the album’s themes—maternal, earthy, and hopeful.

par Spencer Kornhaber publié dans Atlantic