by Sawyer Tedder
The Pantheon of Gay Icons® is an exclusive club reserved for celebrities, mostly fabulous women, whom The Queers writ-large have canonized for being champions of self-love, radical acceptance, and embrace of uninhibited sexuality. We worship our Icons® in the best ways we know how: we honor them by memorizing the lines to their deepest cuts, violently defend their genius through flop eras, dress up and mime them in drag, offer our bodies as canvases for tattoos of their likeness, and learn the choreography to every music video. There are the Top Tier Queens of the Pantheon, needing only one name as proof of their universal recognition, that queers of all ages might understand them as required reading. Cher. Diana. Madonna. Mariah. Britney. Beyonce. Taylor. Just a step below this tier you’ll find Janet, Kylie, Celine, Christina, Lady Gaga, Nicki, Rihanna. Arguably, though, the most fervent of the fan bases goes to the Queens of the Queirdos (Queer+Weirdo). Outsiders amongst outsiders, Queirdos will give you nothing short of their own life when they feel seen and represented in the divas who proudly wave their own freak flag, inspiring the rest of us to follow. These include OG niche legend, Kate Bush, followed by Tori Amos, Robyn, Carly, Charli, Grimes, and Sophie. But if you were a proud Queirdo of the 90’s, there was likely one Icon® who meant more to you than all the rest: Björk, singularly mononymous and world-renowned, yet still mysterious.
Where Cher is the Matriarch, Madge/Madonna is Mother, Beyonce is the Cool Aunt, Britney is Big Sis, Björk is the exchange student from Europe (Iceland, to be exact) who lived on your floor first year of college. She was there studying esoteric Eastern philosophy and walked around barefoot. She introduced you to underground French house music, was concerned about the environment before it was cool, probably took you to your first rave and guided your first psychedelic experience. You following? Good.
And 29 years after her first album, the aptly named Debut, she is back with her 10th solo album proving that all these years later, she is still just as cool, experimental, and as unconcerned with anyone else’s opinion as she was when you first met her, whenever that was. (Aside: I remember downloading Human Behavior on LimeWire [look it up, Gen Z] after hearing it on an episode of Gilmore Girls, circa middle school 06-08, and being instantly confused and hooked.)
Fossora (the ungrammatical feminine of the Latin word for ‘digger’) is another conceptual, avant-pop masterpiece in a line of conceptual, avant-pop masterpieces. As with all of Björk’s discography, this album is tied together with strong themes and motifs; Björk is the originator of the vibe album, if anyone is to be credited. Björk has called this her ‘mushroom’ album, sonically an earthy, bass-forward effort evident in the first single and album lead, “Atopos.” Björk envisions fungus to be all-connecting. It grows beneath us connecting all that is living. But unlike roots, which she calls severe and stoic, unmoving and always digging deeper, “mushrooms are psychedelic, and they pop up everywhere.” The way fungus connects us can be dark. Fungus is the main driver of decomposition, breaking down life on the forest floor. But with the breaking down, life is reused, given back to Mother Earth, and allowed to grow again, beautiful, unique, and in full color. These contradictions, a meditation on ecological and spiritual life cycles, are explored lyrically through the 13 songs, coming in just under an hour.
The first lines of the album act as her thesis, Are these not just excuses to not connect/Our differences are irrelevant/to only name the flaws/are excuses to not connect. Direct and on the nose, she doesn’t want her message lost in the layered and complex arrangement of bass clarinet and beats by the Indonesian gabber group, Gabber Modus Operandi, who are featured on this song. Gabber, an electronic subgenre of hardcore techno, is a huge influence on this album. Writing during the pandemic, Björk was inspired to make music “for people to rave in their living rooms.” “Atopos” sets up what you can expect from the rest of the album: a strong lead that grows on you with each listen.
The emotional kindling of the album is explored through successive songs, “Sorrowful Soil” and “Ancestress.” Björk has described these songs as a eulogy and epitaph, respectively, for her mother, who died in 2018. In “Sorrowful Soil,” Björk tries to properly mourn her mother while taking care of herself. We go to the soil for healing; with death, the singer feels emotional decomposition. She expresses her hurt and anger, but we must have the breakdown to rebound. We have to be open to recreation, constantly reconnecting, reformulating, recalibrating, recommitting.
Where “Sorrowful Soil” was a map to healing, “Ancestress” is an uninhibited inventory of raw emotion. Björk’s mother was an eco-activist who was a skeptic of western medicine. Here the music acts as a mood ring to what is going on in Björk’s mind as she navigates the stages of grief. Tender strings and chimes softly underpin the first part of the song as Björk comes to terms to the idea her mother is gone, before growing louder, into what can be interpreted as anger at her mother for not heeding the advice of doctors to treat her illness. This is change is illustrated through the discordant percussive beats that blast through as the song, and emotion, crescendos. Before it ends, the song mellows. It feels like Björk is finding acceptance, honoring in her mother’s idiosyncrasies, recognizing this is what made her uniquely herself.
Personal album favorites for me include “Victimhood” (dark and complex; Björk at her best), “Allow” (tonally unique, obvious that it was a holdover from 2017’s ethereal Utopia), “Fungal City” (operatic in its grandiosity with gabber bass beats holding down the lower end; the most explicitly sexual song on the album), and title track “Fossora” (clearly the sonic and lyric template for the rest of album). And these selections provide for some of my favorite lyrical moments. “Allow you to grow” she implores simply on the aptly named “Allow,” clearly taking to heart the teachings of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, encouraging growth and healing through intentionally wanting and deciding to do so. “His vitality repolarizes me/my north-south shifts to east-west” she coos on “Fungal City”, the most open celebration of sexual love on this album, the lyrical joy climaxing with the orchestra. But it is on “Fossora” where we finally get to where all of this is leading us, a celebration of digging down deep into oneself and doing the hard work of growing through adversity. And how better to celebrate this than by burrowing deep into a solo celebration of self, where you are prompted to let yourself go in the electronic breakdowns at the end of each song and to dance as if no one is watching
Fittingly, the album culminates at “Her Mother’s House”, a duet between Björk and her daughter. We start with just Björk, before her voice falls out and her daughter takes over. Then Björk joins her again in a haunting, caring refrain of “undo” as the album goes out. It sounds almost like a plea: Björk is asking for help, or understanding, as she works to undo the generational trauma passed on. This is not malicious but done in a way that understands that all parents can’t help to pass on some trauma to their children; even so, parents should always strive for healing and find help in ending cycles of hurt.
Björk at her best virtuosically combines the neoclassical with the industrial. Longtime fans will find similarities with Homogenic, her magnum opus and last album before this one she described as an “Iceland album,” often uninhibited and volatile in its embrace of the technologically new, but also steeped in the country’s choral and folk traditions in its classical elements. Through its melding of traditional sounds, orchestral woodwinds and strings, with new age beat-making, Fossora urges us to look to both the past and the future for better ways to live within the environment and within ourselves. Happy in this contradiction, Björk seems to revel in what feels at times like the most caring mosh pit you have ever entered, one where each shove is a push forward into self-discovery and personal growth. Asking us the hard questions, she challenges what healing is and should be and wants to examine when and how we go through this metamorphic process. Clear on what it wanted to be, Fossora shows Björk is just as individualistic as ever in her musical vision while imagining possibilities for a communitarian future. Queirdos who long looked to Björk for inspiration and belonging will find this album to be triumphant homecoming while new fans fill get only a glimpse into the magical realism that is Björk’s sonic universe. Welcome and don’t mind the dirt.
Sawyer Tedder is the Program Coordinator for the LGBTQ Studies program. When they are not focused on work, Sawyer can be found getting lost in, dancing to, discussing, or reading about music. In another lifetime, Sawyer lived out the plotline to Almost Famous and became a music journalist.