Fever Ray’s surprise album Plunge is like being thrown into cold water and coming up gasping
Eight years after a self-titled debut as Fever Ray, The Knife’s Karin Dreijer has returned with a new surprise album. Does this latest lucid exploration of sex and separation live up to her previous glories? Emily Mackay takes the Plunge and finds out.
Karin Dreijer’s first album as Fever Ray explored the domestic isolation and destabilizing discoveries of motherhood. Its lyrics were filled with small, precise details: seashells, window frames, cushions, childish drawings, dishwasher tablets. Its sonic palette was chiming, muted and moody, low-key in comparison to her work with The Knife.
Eight years later, Plunge, as its title suggests, is a bracing belly-flop back into the outside world, vibrating with joy and terror. Rarely has an album been so suited to surprise release: it’s like being pulled from your cosy bed and thrown into thrillingly cold, sparkling water, coming up gasping.
In its lyrics, Dreijer (the Andersson seems to have been dropped from her surname) grasps new challenges, sometimes with fierce joy, sometimes with careful reticence. Musically, she retains the core of her sound, along with previous collaborators Peder Mannerfelt and Johannes Berglund, but she’s also embraced a clutch of new co-producers: Tami T, Paula Temple, Nídia, Deena Abdelwahed. The result is a more eclectic album, veering between extroversion and introversion, full of beautifully unsettling highs and lows.
The opening songs are the first steps in an uncertain back-and-forth dance between curiosity and wariness. Technoid-thriller tension expresses a lusty longing on ‘Wanna Sip’, which is energized by adrenaline-dumping air raid wails, but sounds a note of caution: “wanna do it, if we do it it’s my way / Cos how you do when you do, it’s not OK”. ‘Mustn’t Hurry’ retreats sonically closer to the first album, with a stately pace, soft flute and a dank, inner-bodily feel, reflecting on “my babies / Pushing boundaries… shame this moment’s soon gone,” balancing those moments with a need for “something more”, while the gently juddering ‘A Part of Us’ celebrates family life and love, but notes “a change in the atmosphere”.
The oblique, beautiful essay released along with Plunge, a collaboration with feminist artist and writer Hannah Black, would probably need a separate review of its own (“Listen! I’m looking for a girl who stands 10 feet tall and has teeth like razors; I’m looking for a girl who could play the bored receptionist in the lobby of the afterlife”). In it, the duo muse that “the object of the song is love and the subject of the song is loss”, and loss and love jostle up against one another in strange ways in this album. In ‘Falling’ (into? or out of?) a long, horror-like, atmospheric intro gives way to crunching beats underfoot as Dreijer’s voice makes its way uncertainly but determinedly through a dark moment: “Sometimes a low is low / Still while pushing what’s possible”. What she comes to is “a queer healing… she makes me feel dirty again… making me me feel I want too much”. Whether this is the end of an old love, or the beginning of new, or both, it’s a triggering, difficult emotional negotiation; no butterflies and heart-emojis here.
At the album’s heart, though, is a wired, wild new energy that’s impossible to stifle, most notably on the Nídia-assisted ‘IDK About You’. It’s a skittering, nervy, frantically track in which a new other, a new body, is explored in a surging rush. “Let’s find out what you are about / What’s hidden in there / What you got for me there?” On the mischievous, sickly lurching ‘This Country’, desire rubs up against with political demands in Dreijer’s shouts of “Free abortions! And clean water! Destroy nuclear! Destroy boring!… this country makes it hard to fuck!”
Now we are ready not to fall, but to ‘Plunge’, a more active verb lit up in the title track by a brightly twinkling, expansive Kraftwerkian sounds. Lead single ‘To The Moon and Back’ dives into a liberatory new crush, with a rainbow-bright poppiness not heard in Dreijer’s work since The Knife’s Deep Cuts and also a hearty frankness: “I want to run my fingers up your pussy”. The video is a treat, Rocky Horror does The Matrix with vigorous, piss-drenched-and-smiling nods to Leigh Bowery, underlining the song’s gleeful queerness.
From there it’s an odd, comedown transition to the ominous, gothic-folky fiddle and dusty, desolate feel of the beautiful ‘Red Trails’, which laments the end of a relationship: “Dismantle us / Touching and there’s no one there / Playing love and kissing air.” By the time we get to the intense ‘An Itch’, with its circling, trapped melody, co-produced by Deena Abdelwahed, lust has become uncomfortable, inadequate (“a hunt, a game, a ditching spree… imagine touched by somebody who loves you”) before ‘Mama’s Hand’ finds a place to rest, with a close, clicking beat and a small-hours feel. It’s in no way clear that the subject is, or is only, a literal mother-child relationship: either way, the takeaway is the same: “The final puzzle piece / This little thing called love.”
A simple enough message, but the glory of Dreijer’s work is the way that its scope – joy and fear, humor, radical politics, great beauty and sonic terror – can narrow to such pure and powerful connections. Things seem to get scarier every day, progress threatening to rewind before our eyes; Fever Ray’s plunge into the world’s mess, bringing us back a precious pearl of love, feels heroic.