Bjork, Avant-Garde Reactionary
Traditionalists may find a great deal of common ground in the Icelandic singer’s latest album.
For almost three decades, Björk has reigned as queen of a quasi-popular realm of the avant-garde. She became a household name as a teenager in her native Iceland as the lead singer of The Sugarcubes, before beginning a series of innovative and affecting solo projects that delight critics while defying their expectations.
Her 1997 album Homogenic—my personal favorite—is an unparalleled mix of lushness and intensity, an electronica-infused tribute to the artist’s unmolested homeland, complimented by hopeful (not always happy) lyrics. On all ten of her studio albums, the musical arrangements are unique feasts of winds, brass, European night club beats, and vocals that are at times pretty, dramatic, and playful.
Björk’s latest album, Fossora (a Latin neologism for “female digger”), is among her very best, featuring one timely song after another and offering alternatives to the values of our irreligious, scientistic age. The album digs into the artist’s family history and the majestic mother country to which she has recently returned. Now in her 50s, Björk’s unusual music has less in common than ever with the ideals of the progressive establishment, and Fossora comes across as conservative, if unwittingly so, signaling that the avant-garde and traditionalism may be meeting more often in the years to come. A related example is Björk’s recent appearance in Robert Eggers’ magnificent anti-Hollywood epic The Northman, a brutal but spiritually rich film that eschews facile secular moralizing.
A longtime environmental activist, Björk has often used her lyrics as an invitation to a world beyond the technocratic absurdities of modernity—the kind of thing that used to seem on-brand in the United States only for the dippiest hippies, but is now more often the domain of younger reactionaries. Instead of hackneyed left-wing platitudes about energy use, Björk describes the joy of communion with the natural neural network of her nearby Nordic forest.
There are no fairies or worship of nature goddesses; there is a sense of panentheism—not the divinity of nature, but divine presence in nature—characteristic pagan stuff revived by the Romantics, but not incompatible with Judaism or Christianity (think Psalm 19, for example). In any case, Björk’s enchanted localism stands in stark contrast to the dogma of the climate change media darlings. Her music does not ask you to imagine a new world created by policy; it makes you imagine smelling the dirt.
Björk’s behavior may have seemed indecent back in 1986 when she exposed her pregnant belly on Icelandic television, and even more so when she appeared at the 2001 Academy Awards wearing a swan dress and dropping eggs on the red carpet. But now her old stunts appear to have been prophetic celebrations of femininity and motherhood in a world where natural childbirth has been increasingly co-opted by the medical-industrial complex and fertility rates continue to plummet. On “Sorrowful Soil,” she sings: “In a woman’s lifetime she gets four-hundred eggs, but only two or three nests.” In the same song she proposes the “emotional textile” of a woman’s sacrifices for her offspring as the way to “cut through this nihilism happening.” On another song, “Ovule,” she decries, “deadly demonic divorces demolished the ideal.”
Over the years, Björk has espoused her own brand of feminism, endorsing #metoo and speaking out about her experience of harassment while filming Dancer in the Dark in 1999, but she has always described the problem as more complex and universal than slogans like “toxic masculinity” convey. The mother of a son now in his thirties, Björk recently told the Atlantic, “If you cancel everyone, that’s not a solution…. Especially with younger males, they have to have an opportunity to evolve and grow and learn.”
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On the standout track, “Victimhood,” Björk offers a refreshing perspective on these timely themes, lamenting, “I sacrificed myself, took one for the team,” but then concludes, “I heed a call out of victimhood.… Here I go now.” She also rejects cancel culture more broadly on the strange and beautiful opening track, “Atopos,” a blend of Gabber techno beats and a sextet of bass clarinets. She sings, “to name only the flaws are excuses to not connect,” and later, “to insist on absolute justice at all times, it blocks connection.”
Perhaps the most beautiful element of Fossora is Björk’s tribute to her mother, who died in 2018. Here Björk demonstrates the way to mourn properly, a phenomenon whose disappearance the late Sir Roger Scruton described as placing modern Western society into a state of helpless melancholy. In the elegiac fashion of the Victorians, and perhaps the ancient Vikings too, Björk sings of the stronger spiritual connection that will endure between her and her mother as the work of mourning progresses. Joy obliterates moping as she sings, “the more freedom I give you, the more freedom you give me.” On the rapturous track “Ancestress,” Björk waxes elegiac, sublimating her mother’s idiosyncrasies with phrases like “the doctors she despised,” and “dyslexia, the ultimate freedom.” She understands herself as heiress of a centuries-old tradition, and the new bearer of her family’s the matriarchal mantle.
She declares the providential nature of the old order’s passing: “nature wrote this psalm, it expands this realm.” As the world becomes weirder, it may be that the old weirdos look increasingly like the sanest and most admirable among us. And among our artists, the avant-garde may continue to find strange bedfellows among traditionalists. On Fossora, Björk enchants us to keep digging together.