“Hey, remember me? I’ve been working like crazy.”
Karin Dreijer’s first recorded words in four years speak volumes. The opening “To the Moon and Back,” from her first Fever Ray album in eight years, is likely not a coincidental reference to her long absence of recent years. In 2013, Dreijer’s band The Knife released their massive final album, Shaking the Habitual, an undertaking large enough to close their legacy on a high. And what an undertaking it was—90 minutes and three LPs’ worth of industrial clang, electro drones and socialist/anarchist politics intersecting with feminism, queer empowerment and a broad questioning of the status quo. Shaking the Habitual was an almost obvious title as a result, but it also served as a stand-in for The Knife’s general approach. Even at their most acclaimed and accessible, their music always came from a position of changing the listener’s perspective, from upsetting expectations of ordinary.
“To the Moon and Back” is, by its sole existence, a kind of assault on expectations in that, six years after any music from Fever Ray had been released, Dreijer once again offered proof that her solo project still existed. Yet the song itself found Dreijer embracing more unabashedly pop sounds than she had in years, still as intricate and jittery as the compositions on Shaking the Habitual, but nowhere near as abrasive. Yet that album’s politics remain at its core, particularly during its libidinous fourth verse, in which Dreijer sings of breathing “life into a fantasy…I want to ram my fingers up your pussy.” In one way or another, whether through its sharply raunchy turn or its subversion of expectations regarding gender or sexuality, “To the Moon and Back” catches the listener off guard. It’s one brilliant example of many on Plunge in which Dreijer is still at her best when shaking the habitual.
Fever Ray’s self-titled debut in 2009 was released following the birth of Dreijer’s second child, and as a result carried a certain intimacy about it that felt unique outside of her music with The Knife. Plunge, arriving eight years later and three after the end of The Knife, is similarly intimate, but in considerably different contexts. There are elements of the familial concerns of which Dreijer’s sung before, particularly in “A Part of Us,” in which she proclaims, “So proud to be a part of us/ A chosen family, to love, to trust.” Yet she just as often takes a more confrontational socio-political approach, as she does on the unsettling “This Country,” where robotic chants of “That’s not how to love me” are juxtaposed against a chant of “Free abortions, clean water/Destroy nuclear, destroy boring.” It’s a lot of ideas swirling around in one three-minute track, but it’s a microcosm of Fever Ray as a whole. As a songwriter, Karin Dreijer intertwines the personal with the political, delivering her most poignant messages in a way such that they couldn’t be ignored.
Plunge is thematically complicated, just as The Knife’s most compelling projects usually are, but on a musical level it’s consistently outstanding, and frequently features Dreijer’s most immediate material. The dark opening thump of “Wanna Sip” carries the polyrhythmic movement of a track like “A Tooth for an Eye,” but with a heavier impact, abrasive industrial synths firing like Roman candles. “An Itch” bounces and wobbles with a playful momentum, while “Red Trails” is a stunning slice of gothic baroque, all dark stabs of violin and gorgeous vocal melodies. Yet the album’s most breathtaking moment is closer “Mama’s Hand,” an eerily psychedelic descent that finds Fever Ray at its catchiest and most haunting.
The most significant revelation behind Plunge is that it got here at all. After retiring her band with brother Olaf a few years ago, Karin Dreijer gave little to no indication that the next step would be a resurrection of Fever Ray. Its return is perhaps a surprising one, but the sound of it is ambitious and spectacular, not the biggest album of her career but certainly one of the best. It’s a brief window into an artist that’s known for being intensely private, and though it’s obscured by stylized blood patterns, her face appearing on the cover says a lot. Plunge is an exploration of desire, love, politics, familial bonds and identity, and does so through a compelling blend of aesthetic beauty and electronic aggression. Through all of its expected filters of effects and distortion, Plunge is a deeply human album.