Fever Ray – Radical Romantics
The public face of Fever Ray is rarely the one that belongs to Karin Dreijer. As a member of The Knife, Dreijer and brother Olof routinely obscured their visages behind birdlike plague masks and other elaborate makeup and wardrobe choices before they called an extended hiatus nearly a decade ago. Before that happened, however, Dreijer accepted an award at the P3 Guld ceremony in Sweden in 2010 in a costume that looked like it was melting, speaking only a low guttural moan as a “speech.” And in the videos and press campaign for new album Radical Romantics, they’ve appeared as something of a drab office drone in both a fairly ordinary looking haircut and something closer to Brian Eno’s Roxy Music-era skullet. Their presence is recognizable by virtue of scarcely being recognizable at all.
The onstage and on-camera theatrics are often presented as a stark contrast to Dreijer’s music itself, which frequently harbors more profound truths. Through both Fever Ray and The Knife, they’ve gone deep on meditations about family, capitalism, self-discovery and sexual desire—topics that warrant or even demand a certain level of vulnerability in order to examine them. Though some of Dreijer’s theatrics can be chalked up to showmanship, as they said in a recent interview with The Guardian, it’s a way to help confront fears and emotions more openly: “If I say this [lyric] from this body, with this voice, what will that do with my fear? How will this be perceived?” On Radical Romantics, that deeper emotional truth is perhaps the most basic and complicated of them all: Love.
This isn’t new territory for Dreijer, not exactly: In 2002 The Knife released “Heartbeats,” a buoyant synth-pop single that captured the endorphin-rush of a new love in brilliant colors and a heart-on-sleeve chorus. The songs on Radical Romantics are awash in darker hues and the perspective of someone 20 years older and whose emotional experience is a much more complicated whole. The album even opens with an apology: “First I’d like to say that I’m sorry,” Dreijer sings on the hypnotic “What They Call Us,” one of a handful of tracks on the album with brother Olof. But deeper into the looping clangs and percussive crashes, there’s a reveal of just how wounded and weary the apologist is: “the person who came here was broken/Can you fix it, can you care?” And through the vocal effects and woozy sophisti-pop of “Kandy,” something more basic than a whirlwind romance with higher highs and lower low proves most appealing, as they sing, “Simply wood and fire/Lovelier than diamonds.”
Less boldly ecstatic and provocative than 2017’s Plunge and far less incendiary than The Knife’s final album Shaking the Habitual, Radical Romantics is a more tempered Fever Ray, but with only slight traces of the haunted atmosphere of their debut. These kinds of pendulum swings are par for the course in Dreijer’s world, and here we’ve caught them at their most meditative and vulnerable, though even with the brightest pop moments somewhat more muted, and with the explosive industrial beats pared back, Radical Romantics is frequently stunning, as on the spacious echoes and polyrhythms of “Shiver,” or the album’s most outsized pop moment, “Carbon Dioxide,” which climaxes in a refrain of “Holding my heart/While falling.“
In addition to what amounts to a proper reunion of The Knife on a few highlights here, Fever Ray finds another equally fascinating pair of collaborators in Nine Inch Nails’ Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, who lend their production aesthetic to the more overt industrial darkwave menace of “Even It Out” and the more gorgeously subtle “North.” Yet it’s ultimately Dreijer as a person, rather than a persona, where Radical Romantics is focused, offering a clearer view of the person feeling these feelings and becoming, perhaps, more comfortable with letting others in. It feels like the most unguarded Fever Ray’s ever been on record—even if amid the mystique and misdirection, it’s only a fleeting glimpse.
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Jeff Terich is the founder and editor of Treble. He's been writing about music for 20 years and has been published at American Songwriter, Bandcamp Daily, Reverb, Spin, Stereogum, uDiscoverMusic, VinylMePlease and some others that he's forgetting right now. He's still not tired of it.