Animal Collective and the Knife have virtually nothing in common sonically, but the sequenced campfire shouts of the former and the latter’s chilly avant-synthpop do boast one strange area of congruence: each act has tackled the fears, rhythms and joys of childhood with a bracing sense of how growing up feels from the inside. Karin Dreijer Andersson’s performance on Silent Shout is still difficult to parse cleanly (the oblique lyrics and constantly shifting vocal filters turn her from a woman to a hall of mirrors), but songs like “Forest Families”, “We Share Our Mother’s Health” and “Neverland” suggest and evoke what it’s like to be old enough to notice things about the world around you but not old enough to understand them. Where Animal Collective tend to react to that state with something approaching joy, though, the Knife have always depicted the casual terror of meaning that’s only partly glimpsed or understood.
“When I Grow Up”, one of the standout songs on Dreijer Andersson’s debut as Fever Ray, is in one sense the most direct take on that theme yet, but befitting an artist who thankfully seems to get weirder as she matures. It’s also too hallucinatory and evocative to be pinned down. The song’s oddly sensual interplay between the guitar-and-keyboard melody and the compellingly off-kilter beat are matched to lyrics that not only reimagine youthful ambitions but also take us somewhere disturbing: “I put my soul in what I do / Last night I drew a funny man with dark eyes and a hanging tongue / It goes way back.” Rarely has a solo project had as fitting a name as Fever Ray does; this music is nebulously intense and disoriented, yet precisely targeted.
With the Knife on hiatus and Dreijer Andersson having just given birth to her second child, Fever Ray was spawned from a weird combination of exhaustion and productivity. It’s fitting that Dreijer Andersson’s occasionally nightmarish muse would strike her so strongly under those circumstances, and the result is an album that’s not only as good as Silent Shout but that’s clearly akin to the sound she and her brother Olof perfected on that record. But it’s not as simple as saying that Fever Ray is the Knife minus dance music. That description doesn’t explain “When I Grow Up” or the sinuous, beeping pulses of “Triangle Walks,” but it is fair to say that this is a far more insular version of what the Knife does, fitting for a record composed and performed solo over the course of eight grueling months.
First single “If I Had a Heart” makes for a telling choice, even if nothing else here quite approaches the enervated terminal point of its endlessly cycling hum. Fever Ray is a record full of hunger, and this dead-eyed opener sets out the stall clearly: “This will never end ‘cause I want more / More, give me more, give me more.” Accompanied by a video that interweaves shots of wide-eyed kids drifting through the night in a canoe with a mansion filled with motionless bodies and wolves that the camera never quite catches, it effortlessly summons up the inhuman quality Dreijer Andersson sometimes brings to her songs (and not just because her voice is downshifted into a low, androgynous moan). “If I Had a Heart” ranks with the very best of her work for the way it marries Dreijer Andersson’s more introspective side with something like the withdrawn inverse of “Silent Shout”’s low, twinkling throb.
Fever Ray as a whole works mostly as a mood piece, with the likes of “Concrete Walls” and “Seven” maintaining the air of childlike unreality, vaguely monstrous desire and hidden knowledge that makes Fever Ray’s cavernous synths and carefully controlled beats so satisfying, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t any standout tracks. “I’m Not Done” may have been born out of Dreijer Andersson wondering how long she’ll keep making music, but in practice the repeated call of “it’s not over / I’m not done” is as quietly terrifying as, say, Massive Attack’s “Risingson”. “Keep the Streets Empty for Me” is as imperiously sweeping and melancholy as the title suggests, and while “Dry and Dusty” is so muted it might not register at first it’s also a quietly ravishing not-quite-love song that’s the most tender moment here.
Nothing that Fever Ray does is as immediate or soaring as a track like “Marble House” but Fever Ray makes up for the lack of highs by being an even more all-enveloping experience than the last few Knife records. Pitched halfway between the jaggedly danceable songs of Silent Shout and the glacial likes of a record like Nico’s The Marble Index, Dreijer Andersson stakes out a nocturnal, compelling space all her own. The dark sweep of the closing “Coconut,” particularly its instrumental first half, suggest a previously unrevealed fondness for Moroder’s soundtrack to Antarctica and it’s tempting to try and draw parallels between the dark bulk of Fever Ray and the most remote of continents. Both are acquired tastes, of course, but reports from inhabitants indicate that once you get acclimatized to the environment, you don’t really want to live anywhere else.