Historically, the "suburbia as Hell" theme is usually casted as an American literary concoction of the antiseptic ’50s. It’s the stuff we all love to hate: stultifying suburbs, the metallic taste of the daily grind. That grind, all lorded over by phantom gender hopes and a vapid consumer culture, bounces around the confines of Fever Ray‘s picket-fence prison. This time, however, its creator is the Swedish electropop musician Karin Dreijer Andersson.
With her brother Olof, the brilliant electro-dance duo the Knife slowly mutated into a distorted house of mirrors project. Silent Shout‘s androgynous take on the ghosts of a technology-driven society spun its twilight narrative underneath a pummeling house beat. Andersson’s claustrophobic approach on Fever Ray is much more insular, a telling hallmark of any solo debut. As a result, it finds cathartic inspiration from the daily minutiae found in domestic life. It’s should be noted that Andersson recently welcomed the birth of her second child.
The monochromatic tropical beats of "Seven" showcases this fact in a brilliantly stark tableau of motherhood. Andersson recounts with a childhood friend she’s known since she was 7. They speak over the phone and "by the kitchen sink" like moms do, talking about "dishwasher tablets, illness, and [they] dream of heaven." It’s hard to realize this inhuman voice could potentially be a soccer mom in the future but Andersson isn’t reveling in her stucco world.
Where Knife songs, like "Marble House" and even "Forest Families," touched lightly upon such themes, Fever Ray dives headlong into the deep, dark, and obscure folds of gender and domesticity. Not all of Andersson’s explorations are as entrancing as her work with the Knife but like apocalyptic lead single, "If I Had a Heart," these haunting songs have a somnambulant charm all their own. This is nothing new though. The Knife made an amazing habit of scaring the shit out of us with their pitch-shifted vocals. The nebulousness of Andersson’s vocals here and on Knife tracks aren’t just parlor tricks.
They waft over the listener like incense for a mantra ("If I Had a Heart") or as spectral pleas for escape ("Coconut"). The moniker for Andersson’s new project fits perfectly. These 10 tracks are beautiful suburban fever dreams where motherly characters can’t sleep without the hum and glow of a TV or radio, Sabbath-keeping housesitters flex their green thumbs ("When I Grow Up"), and insomniacs take 5 a.m. walks in the forest ("Triangle Walks").
Occasionally the somnambulant qualities of Fever Ray pinwheel out of Andersson’s control: “Now’s the Only Time I Know” and ”Keep the Streets Empty For Me" deliver Andersson’s bleak suburban motif well but her loping monotone doesn’t make for great repeat listen. Even amidst amazing production by her friends Christoffer Berg and Van Rivers & the Subliminal Kid, the minimally arranged Fever Ray is best swallowed when Andersson distorts her vocal effects.
The noirish 9-to-5 mantra “Dry & Dusty” is a perfect example, with its raspy and crystalline dual vocals. They sound foreign, yet familiar. Her vocals on the industrial-like "I’m Not Done" exemplify the common quality of both Fever Rayand the Knife songs: a tacit ambiguousness toward typical gender roles. Many forget that on Silent Shout it was Karin doing all the singing over Olof’s house beats. Looking back, the Knife‘s boycott of the 2003 Swedish music awards on the grounds that the industry favors "people over music," had to be ushered in by friends in gorilla costumes and pitch-shifted voices. They pulled something equally infamous for their acceptance speech during the 2007 show. It’s easy to see that the Anderssons don’t view themselves as mere pop performers and even with its chinks, Fever Ray magnifies that discussion. It seems apt then to distort the oft-used "suburbia-as-Hell" motif to "performer-in-Hell."