Fever Ray Radical Romantics Rabid Records
A new Fever Ray album is a rare act of providence, and it has been a long six years since we were blessed with new work from Swedish auteur Karin Dreijer.
They last graced us with their presence in 2017 with Plunge, an urgently political album calling for radicalisation through kink and hedonism. Perhaps fittingly, their latest opus, Radical Romantics, trades the punk sexuality of its predecessor for a metaphysical analysis of what comes after the highs of bodily pleasure: the intellectual negotiation of romance. It’s the lengthy comedown of love after the brief ecstasy of sex, or, as they describe in the album notes: “Love makes you its instrument. Lust will only play you.”
But this is a Fever Ray project, meaning this is far from your average courtship. As evidenced by the album artwork (depicting what could be Dreijer cosplaying as Beetlejuice at prom), Dreijer exploring romance does not necessitate something cute and cuddly. They want a person with “teeth like razors, fingers like spice”, as declared on the surprisingly upbeat Looking for a Ghost, which later reveals their pet names: “You call me smoothie, I call you birdseed.” The record’s propulsive single Carbon Dioxide, on which they set out to “describe the feeling of when you fall in love”, analogises this sensation to the chemical compound driving the destruction of our biosphere while quoting 1 Corinthians 13:1 and “sipping on a sparkling tumour”. The track is a shot of pure adrenaline, conveying the dizzying heights of infatuation via rave-ready synths with such energy that Dreijer issues a forceful “WHOOOO!” before the climax.
Though Dreijer steers clear of overt declarations of intent, the songs on Radical Romantics study love through a full lifespan of emotions. Mournful album opener What They Call Us pines for connection with bleeding-heart vulnerability, while tracks like Shiver and North assert the need for touch over delicate dialogues worlds away from the empowered commands of their previous album. The captivating Tapping Fingers, though resplendent in plinking lines of arpeggiating synth, is cited by Dreijer as “the saddest song” they’ve ever written, yearning for a lover when their absence is a “never-ending waiting”. And then there’s Even It Out, which centres familial love through a narrative that plots revenge on the high school bully of Dreijer’s child (the album notes assure us that the name of the tormentor was changed).
For the usually enigmatic songcraft of Dreijer, Radical Romantics feels like a cleaning of the slate. They write about time spent in therapy, and built a new studio when they began work on this record in 2019. But the updated environment did little to change their characteristically jagged grooves. This album is suffused with all the sonic hallmarks we’ve come to expect from Fever Ray, complete with breathy, unsettling vocals, razor-sharp synths and gradually layered, globular compositions (Shiver in particular expertly utilises this layering technique, making it hard to distinguish whether the duelling ululations are synthetic or human).
But over this familiar bedrock, Dreijer pivots into some wholly unexpected directions. Their oeuvre contains many songs that skirt the edges of tropical house, but the strutting pitter-patter of Kandy is the closest they have come to crafting an outright reggae song – an influence seemingly confirmed by the paraphrasing of Bob Marley’s Satisfy My Soul on Looking for a Ghost. The track is largely a spoken-word piece – an outlier in their catalogue in that respect – while Even It Out features a vocal performance more reminiscent of Sex Pistols or Sandinista!-era The Clash than Fever Ray. Interestingly, this track is one of two collaborations with Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross of Nine Inch Nails, whose unmistakable aesthetic touch is clearly felt on both Even It Out and North. Both tracks hum with the complex ambient noise that defines the duo’s film score work, yet fans expecting a big, brash, industrial moment will be disappointed to hear what low-tempo affairs these tracks are; more Social Network soundtrack than Closer. It’s hard not to feel like this pairing of kinky, electro-pop like-minds is a bit of a wasted opportunity.
This blockbuster collaboration points to what may be the defining aspect of Radical Romantics: it’s a fairly downbeat entry in Fever Ray’s illustrious body of work. While a phenomenally constructed album, listeners looking for the cascading highs of their previous records will not find any such bangers here (Carbon Dioxide the exception). As Fever Ray’s “love album”, it supports their notion that romance, though rich with complexity and deeply rewarding, is not nearly as fun as the immediate rush of lust. The afters is never quite as much fun as the party, but fortunately, in Dreijer’s captivating hands, they still make it sound just as enticing.