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Fever Ray
Plunge Ben Hewitt , October 30th, 2017 10:17

On her second album as Fever Ray, Karin Dreijer transforms lust into something radical and liberating.

When Winston Smith and Julia have sex for the first time in 1984 – a meticulously plotted, clumsily consummated fumble in the countryside, far away from prying eyes – they both know their tryst is more than just mere itch-scratching. It’s about grasping the freedom to feel and fulfil desire, the transgression of wanting someone else’s body even though it’s contrary to all the political dogma they’ve been fed. By the time they’ve finished, it’s less a moment of physical pleasure and more a proud act of defiance: “Their embrace had been a battle, the climax a victory.”

Karin Dreijer’s second Fever Ray album, Plunge, often chases those same victories, transforming lust into something radical and liberating. On the jittery ‘This Country’, she goes as far as to imagine herself as a sort of flesh-seeking freedom fighter, her libido flattened by a tyrannical state that “makes it hard to fuck”. She battles back with S&M (“Gag me, awake my fighting spirit”) and utopian turn-ons (“Free abortions! And clean water!”), boiling down her resistance into a simple manifesto: “Every time we fuck, we win.” We can overcome, in other words; we can come.

By this point, it should be clear just how different Plunge is to Dreijer’s Fever Ray debut, released eight years ago while her old band, The Knife, were in between albums. That record sounded like a long-buried bundle of eerie fairytales, brought to life with frosty, skeletal atmospherics; Plunge can be equally unnerving, but the creepy, controlled menace is mostly replaced by something more fidgety, its songs thrumming with nervous excitement and strange, sci-fi-like sounds - note how the dark, rattling clangs of the opening ‘Wanna Slip’ are soon split open by the shrill wail of synths screaming through the sky. And while Dreijer’s voice was sometimes manipulated into a woozy, husky drone on the previous LP, here it’s manic, shaky, urgent. “A bad headache, intoxicated/ I’ve got to let you go,” she shrieks, trying to think straight amid the din.

Much of Fever Ray’s spookiness came from the oddly skewed perspectives of its narrators, who had a habit of twisting mundanity into something uncannily supernatural: the wide-eyed children who saw imaginary faces in the ceiling, the sleep-deprived adults convinced prankish magpies were laughing behind their backs. If Dreijer seems similarly frazzled on Plunge, it’s because she’s frequently caught between longing and anxiety. “Sometimes my head bangs/ I’m kinda hooked on your scent,” she pants on ‘Wanna Sip’, overcome by animal lust. When she decides she has had enough, it’s because she thinks her partner is too close-minded. They’re dismissed with a witheringly judgmental kiss-off: “You’re not curious/ I don’t think you should hang with us.”

That twinge of curiosity is often key on Plunge: if none of its other songs have the same explicit sex-as-insurrection stakes as ‘This Country’, many are driven by a hunger for new sensations, or looking for some wiggle room between craving and contentment. The slow, stealthy flutes of ‘Mustn’t Hurry’ find Dreijer sounding restless even as she preaches patience, juggling cosy family life with her roving eye, while the domestic bliss of ‘A Part Of Us’ is undercut by jarring bitty bleeps and the sudden chill “in the atmosphere”.

All that stymied passion is uncorked on ‘IDK About You’, a collaboration with NÍDIA (she’s one of a handful of new-to-Dreijer producers to feature on the album, with old familiars Johannes Berglund and Peder Mannerfelt joined by Paula Temple, Deena Abdelwahed and Tami T). Its tribal thud is peppered with gasps of excitement, and Dreijer’s voice again is frenzied and breathless. “What’s hidden in there?/ What’ve you got for me there?” she chatters excitedly, unglued by having some new private nooks and crannies to discover. The nervy anticipation, the should-I-or-shouldn’t-I emotional wrangling, makes the subsequent satisfactions feel like hard-earned trophies; if boldness isn’t its own reward, it certainly heightens the end result. Just look at ‘To The Moon And Back’, in which a chocolatey-sweet crush is turned into a moment of lewd, giddy triumph. “Your kiss is sweet and creamy,” sings Dreijer, her voice rushing past in a bright swirl of shining-star synths. “Your lips, warm and fuzzy/ I want to run my fingers up your pussy.”

But not everything is as gleefully poppy as that; there are times when the tremors on Plunge feel dark, uneasy, conflicted. In the esoteric essay Dreijer and author Hannah Black co-wrote to accompany the album, they declared: “It’s still possible to negotiate between pain and pleasure, on the vanishing edges of pain and pleasure, as if cutting a deal, the best deal, a beautiful deal.” Sometimes, that tricky balance manifests itself with shivers of discomfort, like the feeling of being grabbed at by unfamiliar hands on the juddering rhythms of ‘An Itch’. Elsewhere, sex can be nightmarish and sinister, and it seems entirely possible that some of these violent fragments are about bitter, bruising ends rather than new beginnings (or, perhaps, a blurring of both). ‘Falling’ twitches dangerously, its murky electronics pulsing and throbbing, and its chorus smothered in an ambiguously sinister cloud: “She makes me feel dirty again.” The mournful violins of ‘Red Trails’, meanwhile, score something even more unsettling, with Dreijer’s opening lines as vivid as they are haunting: “Blood was our favourite paint/ You were my favourite pain.”

All of which means that, initially, the closing ‘Mama’s Hand’ feels like a strangely wholesome sore thumb to end on. As its title suggests, it seems to crave a maternal comfort out of sync with the more rampantly adult impulses elsewhere. “I’m yours to rock in place,” she croons over twitchy rhythms and trilling instrumentation. “The final puzzle piece/ This little thing called love.” It might be less daring than some of the other hankerings, but there’s no room for emotional snobbery on Plunge, no victory that’s not worth celebrating: those seized, stolen intimacies she’s grubbed around for, the flashes of desire and flushes of pleasure, are things to be savoured.