That the Knife's 2006 breakthrough Silent Shout didn't set the dominoes on a series of similarly grotesque and unnatural sounding imitators is less an indictment on its impact than a comment on its inimitability. The current apex of ten years' collaboration between siblings Karin Dreijer Andersson and Olof Dreijer, it's one of a handful of albums from the past decade that one might argue sounded like nothing before it. In the three years since, the Dreijers have treaded lightly, touring and remixing in carefully managed bursts before quietly receding back into silence altogether.
When news of a Dreijer Andersson solo project called Fever Ray broke in October, one would have been forgiven for wondering if the duo hadn't secretly made good on their threats to call it quits. God knows, they still might. The point is, you'll get no clues here: although every bit as alluring, this debut has as much in conflict as it has in common with Silent Shout. The sounds often square, but the ferociousness has been subsumed by a slow drip of anxiety and dread. The macabre nursery rhymes have given way to lyrics that imply a sort of domestic cabin fever. It's still of the same creator, just not from the same swamp.
Things move slowly here; they slither instead of stomp. The house-inflected, booming low end of Silent Shout has been scrubbed away, leaving Karin's voice naked and upfront, anchoring the songs in a way it hasn't previously been required to. Although no less inscrutable, her lyrics adjust. Where those on Silent Shout had a witchy scale and ambition appropriate to the hugeness of the songs, Fever Ray's words feel so interior as to seem slightly unhinged. Indeed, one of Fever Ray's most remarkable aspects comes from how Dreijer Andersson funnels little moments of humor, banality, remembrance, mania, and anxiety through her deadpan affect to create a central character worthy of any psychological horror. You might even reasonably suggest this record is about psychosis. "I've got a friend who I've known since I was seven/ We used to talk on the phone/ If we have time/ If it's the right time," she declares conspiratorially, amidst pattering drums and faintly tropical synths in "Seven". In the morose, slumbering "Concrete Walls", she slows her voice to a pained yawn, which repeats the final couplet to a resigned fade: "I live between concrete walls/ In my arms she was so warm/ Oh how I try/ I leave the TV on/ And the radio."
In addition to many of the same plasticky percussions and goofy synth sounds that the Knife made their stock in trade, Fever Ray also brims with fragile, more finely articulated sounds, such as the delicate mallet instruments that punctuate "Now's The Only Time I Know", the bamboo flute that wanders through "Keep the Streets Empty For Me", and the grinding guitar sound in "I'm Not Done". The album moves at roughly the same pace and with the same general tone, rendering some of the songs indistinguishable at first, but committed listens will reveal this to be as nuanced and as rich of a production as anything either Dreijer has done.
The highlights are many. Opener "If I Had a Heart" is a shivering, timely meditation on greed, immorality, and lust for power that dovetails nicely with AIG and Madoff ("This will never end cause I want more/ More, give me more, give me more"); "I'm Not Done" is a pressurized squall that culminates with Karin dueting with a helium-voiced version of herself; while seven-minute closer "Coconut" rumbles on a pattern of synths and staccato drums before a ceremonious wall of voices arrive at the midpoint to march it to a close. Except, "close" implies it was written: the more time you spend with Fever Ray, the more you become convinced that these songs aren't written so much as they're temporarily let out. They're too starved, too eerie, and too transfigured to have been anything but.
— Mark Pytlik, March 20, 2009
We might look on childhood—and likewise the art that embraces it—as irreverent or cute or regressive but it’s unlikely that children themselves can ever relate to these concepts even in their purest form. Check out Karin Dreijer Andersson in the video for “When I Grow Up”: standing on the diving board of a swimming pool in post-apocalyptic rags, war paint and eyes drawn on her palms in an odd juxtaposition of Andersson’s intense tribal stare with a rather banal suburban environment. But childhood embraces the transformation of the mundane into an epic struggle of survival: in the same track she sings about drawing a “funny man with dog eyes and a hanging tongue” and doesn’t even remotely sound like Animal Collective when she does it.
I experienced my own transformation over the course of listening to Silent Shout (2006) and I doubt I’m the only one: somehow it went from being a fun but one-trick dance record to a massive synth-pop masterpiece that sucked all of its well-worn elements into a black hole that made any comparisons seem trivial. A “monochromatic rainbow” as our house MD Alan Baban eloquently put it. I doubt the same questions regarding integrity or craft will be applied to Fever Ray, Andersson’s solo project and close enough in sound to be an informal follow-up to Silent Shout. Perhaps because most people have had the time to absorb and move beyond the exaggerated reactions to its initial impact but also because, like most solo records, Fever Ray is a more refined songwriterly affair, even if the drama and icy synths (is there really any other descriptor for what they sound like?) have hardly been reduced.
But Andersson, writing most of these songs after the birth of her second child, plays with gender dynamics as much as childhood themes. It was easy to forget that she presumably delivered most of the vocals herself with the Knife, her brother Olof contributing mostly on the programming and beats. On Fever Ray she stands alone and the androgyny of her vocal manipulations is apparent from the outset, her voice brought down to a deep baritone on “If I Had a Heart” as she sings “this will never end ‘cause I want more” (again playing into the sometimes diabolical mindset of a child). Considering the Knife boycotted the Swedish music awards, sending friends in gorilla masks to protest the inequal gender dynamics in popular Swedish music—perhaps a shout-out to the feminist performance art group Gorilla Girls—the implications for gender dynamics are probably well understood by Andersson.
But their reasons for the boycott went beyond just gender, claiming they were “tired of the focus on people instead of music in the media”. Their identity-obliterating (not to mention seizure-inducing) live shows only confirm this. The difference with Fever Ray is the personal element, the self-conscious “solo album” format, which makes the album a strange meditation on the fragmented self. The sleeplessness associated with motherhood, not to mention the degree to which protective instincts overwhelm conscious decision-making, result in an album whose narrator seems to be constantly slipping in and out of control; trying to let the TV and radio lull her to sleep on “Concrete Walls” or longing for a zen-like path on “Keep the Streets Empty for Me.”
Occasionally the somnambulant qualities of the album seem to put the songs on autopilot: “Now’s the Only Time I Know” and “I’m Not Done” could use more than Andersson’s long, monotone vocal delivery, even if the production behind them is still interesting. Fever Ray is best when she plays around with the vocal effects within the same song, as on “Dry & Dusty” when she seems to be doing a duet with a raspy, weathered version of herself—which somehow sounds entirely natural despite being heavily processed.
Of course the biggest complaint anyone will lodge against Fever Ray is that there’s none of the pounding house beats that characterized most of Silent Shout; there are a lot of tracks that take the tone and pace of “The Captain” and “From Off to On” and nothing that sounds like “We Share Our Mother’s Health.” That element was what lifted Silent Shout to one of the decade’s best electronic records: somehow both unrelenting in atmosphere but also with a bracing intensity, not to mention their often unacknowledged lyrical brilliance. In lieu of an actual follow-up we get something that manages to make good on two of those three elements. I’ll take it.
2 March 2009