For decades, Björk has been known for her idiosyncratic approach to music. Her songs often bombard the listener with sounds from every direction, challenging them to keep up while indifferent to their ability to do so. Her newest album, “Fossora,” continues this philosophy. More than thirty years into her career, it would be strange if it didn’t.
The album opens unsurprisingly with “Atopos,” a choppy, discordant and chaotic tune. The crunchy dembow beat cuts in and out frequently while the rest of the instrumentation is supported by clarinets and occasional background vocals. The harmony flows between strong consonance and aggressive, almost serialist-sounding dissonance, creating a polarizing sequence.
The dissonances are exaggerated by the clarinet’s flighty timbre and the lack of rhythmic structure further elevates the chaos. One would think this would make the consonances more effective by comparison, but the texture is so amorphous and fluid that the listener has a hard time orienting themselves enough to appreciate it.
Björk moves to a more consistent place on the next song, “Ovule.” The song builds from its inception, beginning with soft brass playing a fanfare that repeats throughout. Although this fanfare makes up the majority of the backing instrumentals on “Ovule,” it doesn’t have a rhythmic pulse, and the rest of the moving parts follow this example.
Even later on, when percussion is added, it plays what sounds like the beginning of a beat, but it never arrives at a place of metrical regularity. Although it features more structure than “Atopos” before it, “Ovule” invites no one to dance.
This trend continues in “Sorrowful Soil,” but the dissonant harmony that has pervaded the album thus far takes a backseat. This song is almost entirely vocal, save for a synth bass that makes an occasional appearance. The choral arrangement brings a sense of grandiosity and organization to the tune, but the rhythm is still absent.
Additionally, even though the harmony remains mostly consonant, “Sorrowful Soil” never falls into any particular key center and never adopts a consistent harmonic motion. It sounds as though Björk improvised the vocal “melody” in a vacuum and built harmonies around it. This allows for a pleasant ensemble sound, but not much cohesion.
The album for the most part continues in this nebulous, liquid fashion until the title track, “Fossora.” While it still features the typical Björk eccentricity – with what sounds like a clarinet etude over a house beat – it introduces elements of rhythmic and harmonic structure.
The greatest musical disparity here is between the percussion and harmonic instruments. The clarinets, oboes and flutes sound out of a woodwind quintet while the drums could easily back up a hard-hitting EDM track. The consistent harmonic movement and steady pulse give the listener something to latch on to, but “Fossora” sounds just as strange and alien as Björk’s other music.
The album ends with a flicker from “Her Mother’s House.” Retaining the lack of form, this song dramatically turns down the intensity. The soft background vocals and oboe are thick with reverb and descending vocal runs punctuate phrases like birds flitting through an otherwise still landscape.
With its gentle sound, “Her Mother’s House” completely recontextualizes Björk’s structural inclinations. The slower tempo makes the fluid rhythms feel much more natural and the harmonies, still somewhat jarring, are much more palatable. It feels like it’s giving itself space to breathe rather than tripping over its own feet.
I found “Fossora” to be a difficult listen. Rhythm and harmony are integral to my understanding and enjoyment of a work of music, but “Fossora” seems to be more interested in creating musical vignettes and spectacles. If that’s the goal, it succeeds with flying colors.
This should neither surprise nor disappoint any past fan of Björk’s music, many of whom will undoubtedly love her newest album. However, it presents a high barrier to entry for new listeners, one that can only be surpassed through the abandonment of some important musical conventions. If the barrier can be broken, “Fossora” is a grand, delightful showcase of spectacle, but I think I’ll stick to my convention for now.