Premature Evaluation

Premature Evaluation: Fever Ray Plunge

The last time we heard from Karin Dreijer, she was excoriating modern society on the Knife’s most overtly political album, Shaking The Habitual, which apparently also served as that project’s farewell note. But four years after that album and eight years after her debut as Fever Ray, Dreijer has returned with a new solo album that’s just as searing and incisive as anything she’s done. Plunge turns its crosshairs on a topic more personal but no less political: love. What is it? Who gets to feel it? Plunge takes the most intimate relationship that two people can share and twists it into a funhouse mirror of human desire and sexuality.

In the manifesto that accompanied the album’s announcement, Dreijer repeats a phrase that opens up the endless complexities of Plunge: “The decision to fall is harder than the fall itself.” Our worst fears lie in anticipation, in what we conceive of The Thing rather than The Thing itself. What’s holding us back? Love has been built up by Western society as the ultimate end goal, something that is all-encompassing and inescapable and wanted by everyone. But as reality has proven, that’s not necessarily true. Humans can be fulfilled with love, without love, with an arrangement that doesn’t fit the traditional narrative of what love looks like. How much of what we think of as love is part of human nature? And how much of it is based on societal expectation?

Plunge grapples with these hard questions and many more. Never has Dreijer sounded more conflicted, using the language of radical politics and academic theory to attempt to define an undefinable desire. The inclination to lay down roots is natural (maybe?), but at what cost? “I dig/ I plant/ A walnut tree/ I pour a lot of water,” Dreijer sings methodically on “A Part Of Us.” Love persists as an itch, but it is some vestigial want that we’ve evolved past or is it part of the core of what makes us human?

And, to top it all off, not only is love neither unnatural nor natural, but the feeling itself is mitigated and blocked by politics and social contracts and shame, from “the threadbare social democracies in the north to the liberated markets in the west,” as Dreijer puts it in her manifesto. “What we are brings the wrong kind of attention out here,” she sings on one track; “We’re not attractive to this country’s standards,” on another, emphasizing how queer love is even further stigmatized and demonized by society. “She’s making me feel dirty again,” she sings on “Falling.” “Making me feel I want too much/ Making me feel it’s enough.”

Those are some heavy ideas to unpack, even in the most verbose and dense of treatises, and Dreijer uses her preferred artistic medium — icy, deconstructed pop songs — to take apart not only what love is but what it means to feel it. The result is some of the most dementedly thrilling music that Dreijer has ever made. Her arsenal is familiar but sharp and finely tuned. Plunge sits somewhere in-between the forked-tongue malignancy of Silent Shout and the blunt expression of the Knife’s last album, with some of the sinister playfulness of the duo’s earliest albums mixed in. Dreijer’s voice is as striking as ever. The ways that she’s used that voice in the past have deliberately challenged the standards of beauty, poking holes in our conception of what can be heard as harmonious. And on Plunge, she morphs that voice into a snarling firebrand, using it to constantly question the status quo, a twisted head and torso attempting to examine every angle all at once and ending up tied in knots.

Taken in context with the rest of her solo work, it seems as though Dreijer is using Fever Ray as a kind of pop persona mask. The project’s most well-known songs to date, like “When I Grow Up” and “If I Had A Heart,” act as subversions of well-worn tropes like nostalgia and heartbreak. With Plunge, she tightens up that loose concept to craft 11 love songs that run the gamut from devilishly sly to heartrendingly sincere. She picks at what a love song even means, how music itself can make such a beautiful emotion sound so ugly and such a terrible feeling seem so pretty.

The opening lines of the album are a negotiation — “I wanna love you but you’re not making it easy” — and the last lines are a plea for a connection that fits the shape of those four letters, that looks and feels like how we think it can feel and how we’ve read in the stories: “This little thing called love/ The missing thing called love/ A little thing called love,” she sings, parroting back a ubiquitous Queen song. The endlessly thorny knot that is love has Dreijer devolving into clichés, or at least what passes for cliché through a Fever Ray lens, which, of course, ends up not being very conventional at all.

Despite all the deliberating over what love could mean, Plunge contains some of Dreijer’s most direct lyrics and imagery ever, tapping into the immediacy that makes lust and love so intoxicating and powerful and dangerous. “Your lips/ Warm and fuzzy/ I want to run my fingers up your pussy,” she sings on the album’s dizzily warm lead single. “This house makes it hard to fuck/ This country makes it hard to fuck,” she emphasizes on “This Country,” the track that most mirrors Shaking The Habitual’s feverish decay. And on “Red Trails,” the borderline corny line “Waiting for your love to happen/ Is like waiting for a drug that never kicks in” is sharpened by the piercing strings that surround it, recalling the Knife’s opulent opera Tomorrow, In A Year. All of these sentiments are underlined in red, highlighting the rigidity of those feelings in the moment while still allowing for the possibility that it’s all a mirage.

For a more concrete example of how Dreijer’s songwriting has gotten more pointed with time, look no further than the pummeling penultimate track “An Itch,” which plays out like a high-speed chase that juxtaposes the penetrating male gaze (“I go out and slam whoever I meet/ They always reach out to touch me”) with the desire for something warmer and not so oppositional (“Imagine touched by somebody who loves you”). Take that and compare it with something like Silent Shout’s “Na Na Na,” which hides an even more bracing take on the same subject underneath stretched-out, indistinguishable vocals that call for “chemical castration, hope and godspeed.” When looking back on that album in light of its 10-year anniversary, Dreijer said that a lot of the songs on Silent Shout were about “a numb feeling,” and if that album was all about numbness and the tendency to conceal intent, then Plunge is about the overabundance of feeling, shooting off with passion in every possible direction.

Dreijer weaponizes all of that feeling into some of the most accessible and exacting music that she’s ever made. “To The Moon And Back” is pure pop bliss, a swirling encapsulation of the thrills of early infatuation. “IDK About You,” a bracing collaboration with Portuguese-French producer Nídia, is built for the strobe-lit dance floor, an energetic come-on (“Let’s find out if our spirits meet/ Let’s push and tweak/ Let our spirits meet”) where one of the frenetic beats is a literal moan. Each song on the album inhabits its own fully realized world, from the flutes on “Mustn’t Hurry” to the dissociative instrumental breakdown of “Plunge,” and the gradual shifts from song to song only serve to highlight how strong Dreijer’s handiwork has gotten with time.

Over nearly two decades, the Knife and Fever Ray have utilized a soundscape made of clenched teeth and tight fists and rubber-band snaps. Plunge contains a lot of those familiar tools, but it also shades their world in new and exciting ways, adding even more layers to the Scandinavian chill that we were introduced to so long ago. Plunge feels more open and breathable than anything else that Dreijer has been involved in. Maybe that’s symptomatic of love, maybe that’s just the natural effect of aging and figuring out life as you grow along with it.

The questions about love and desire and companionship that are mulled over on Plunge will always stay the same, though the answers might change. Dreijer’s music has always felt somewhat removed from time, topical but not current, as though the problems she’s facing and translating to music span generations both past and future. In the manifesto that came with Plunge, Dreijer attempts to put a name to her sound: “This is how it sounds, the excavated voice, the archaeological dig one thousand or eight years into the future, when the bodies preserved in this auditory mud have become exemplary of their time and can no longer hurt or help each other.” But, in the end, it comes down to a simple but endlessly fraught connection: “Then I will know how to love you and be loved by you.” Fever Ray is fighting a longer battle.

Plunge is out now via Mute/Rabid.