Fever Ray – Radical Romantics
Karin Dreijer opens Radical Romantics with an apology. “I’ve done all the tricks that I can,” confesses Dreijer, offering us their atonement. After all, being a fan of Fever Ray is a complex experience. First introduced to the world as a genderfucked shamanic entity wielding primordial witch house beats, it would be seven years of silence until Dreijer’s solo avatar re emerged as a synthpop jester in leg warmers and KISS makeup. Yet, the entire time, Dreijer’s audience seemed to remain enraptured by who, or what, the Fever Ray enigma was. And even after the switch up of Plunge, that intrigue never faded. If anything, it intensified. So while being a fan of Fever Ray may be a complex experience, it’s a rewarding one. What’s always been apparent about Fever Ray is that the project is a vessel for Dreijer to explore the personal by way of the absurd, and at times macabre. In between the strange hooks and unlikely pop disposition of Fever Ray’s fever dreams are notes on the intricacies of gender and queerness, body politics, and perhaps most pertinently, desire. Fever Ray is the experience of otherness made manifest. For them, desire is abjection. Theirs is an exploration into those carnal urges that render desire as instinct, presenting an alternate view devoid of normative sexuality and the standards of beauty. Concrete Walls, for instance, demonstrates the disturbing closeness of infatuation and stalkerish obsession, daring to ask “do I want to fuck you, or eat you?”
While desire has always been present in Fever Ray, it’s on their latest album Radical Romantics that it becomes thematically central for the first time. The sound that Dreijer finds for this exploration feels like a synthesis of the two previous Fever Ray avatars. The production is pleasingly three dimensional, using the dynamics of space to bring its palette of tribal percussion and voltaic synthesizers to life. Dreijer’s brother and The Knife bandmate Olof produces the album’s first four tracks, and it’s no surprise that these are the songs that crackle the most. Olof’s understanding of his sister’s point of view is as intimate as their own, and it shows. While the core sonic elements of Radical Romantics are unmistakably Fever Ray, Dreijer finds room to venture outside of their usual boundaries. They enlist Lisbon producer Nídia to provide a foggy but humid afro-dembow pulse on the tender Looking For A Ghost, which also features some of Dreijer’s most uncanny vocal manipulations to date. The Olof produced New Utensils looks toward baile and kuduro (a logical progression), while on the propulsive Carbon Dioxide, producer Vessel frames Fever Ray as ravey four-four techno. That Radical Romantics is not the same sort of radical departure that Plunge was is intriguing, and that Dreijer returns to the sounds that established Fever Ray alludes to the actual narrative at play beneath the surface of this album. At face value, Dreijer presents a thesis on desire and love in all its forms, violent or otherwise. On Shiver, the excitement of sexual attraction becomes practically ravenous. Dreijer’s voice does its androgynous dance across slippery synths and vocalizations that sound like primal mating calls. “Some girls you wanna thrust / Some girls you wanna see shiver,” they moan as they explore the sub/dom dynamic by equating it to the relationship between predator and prey. Longing for a distant lover is expressed through the body horror of elongating one’s limbs enough to reach them on Tapping Fingers. It’s a distinctly Fever Ray image, processing the ache of missing someone by way of the grotesque.
But perhaps more so than a portrait of desire, Radical Romantics is a portrait of motherhood. The love that Dreijer explores most vehemently here goes beyond the romantic; this is the love that turns you into a carnivore with an instinct to protect at all costs. Take Even It Out, where Dreijer addresses the song directly to her child’s high school bully. It’s a queasy, tumultuous mix of riot girl punk and synthpop, bristling with a tension heightened by Dreijer’s manic performance. Produced by Trent Reznor, it’s one of the most radical moments on Radical Romantics. While revenge is a common pop trope, revenge directed at a minor told from an enraged mother’s point of view isn’t, and Dreijer audaciously goes there in all its gruesome (and morally questionable) glory. In the accompanying music video, they perform the song in exaggerated trailer-trash mommy drag, like an unhinged John Waters character who walks the tightrope between camp and psychotic. But it goes deeper than a simple threat to ‘Zacharias,’ the name-switched tormentor in question. When Dreijer says “there’s no room for you,” she’s speaking about heteronormative society at large. Which brings us back to that apology at the top of this album. What They Call Us is both Radical Romantics’s outlier and thesis statement. It’s a track that wouldn’t feel out of place on their eponymous debut. Once again assuming the shrouded, androgynous voice of the Fever Ray shaman, Dreijer presents a call to arms. “Did you hear what they call us?” they demand. In that moment, it’s Dreijer’s listener who becomes the object of their maternal affection. When they close Radical Romantics with the seven minute wordless ambient synthscape of Bottom Of The Ocean, it’s like returning to the womb.
For an artist who’s always looking to appeal to the other, Radical Romantics positions Dreijer as protector of the misfits, or to borrow from queer jargon, as “mother.” It’s interesting that Radical Romantics arrives at a time where motherhood is having its ‘daddy’ moment. Pop culture seems enraptured by the matriarch, both nurturing and dominant, going so far as to appropriate the queer connotations of ‘mother’ into the lexicon of mass culture. If anyone has earned the right to assume this title, it’s Dreijer. Though they may be elusive, whenever Fever Ray has emerged from the shadows, it’s been as a voice for the outliers. Like the experience of stanning Fever Ray, Radical Romantics is complex. It’s their most defiant statement of intent to date, an album that, like the image of motherhood Dreijer proposes, is as full of heart as it is full of gall.
Listen to Even It Out from Radical Romantics below.
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