Lost Chords & Serenades Divine #4 by Stephen McClurg
Fever Ray: Plunge (2017)
“Seeing these exhibitions I’ve longed to laugh, with the rest, but that strange imitation was impossible. Taking a penknife with a sharp-edged blade, I slit the flesh at the points joining the lips. For an instant I believed my aim was achieved. I saw in a mirror the mouth ruined at my own will! An error! Besides, the blood gushing freely from the two wounds prevented my distinguishing whether this really was the grin of others.”
~ from Les chants de Maldoror, by Comte de Lautréamont
Around the millenium, I avoided electronic music like I did movies with newfangled, but clumsy, CGI. The technological improvements over almost two decades have helped me soften towards electronic music. Either that or my tastes have changed, or maybe a little of both. Some of the recent electronic music I’ve liked has harnessed new ideas to old synth and keyboard sounds similar to movie scores by John Carpenter, who is himself putting out new recordings these days.
Something similar, a reinvigoration of once obsolete sounds, is happening on the newest Fever Ray record, the solo project of Karin Dreijer from the Swedish electronic duo, The Knife. One strain of sounds reminds me of the arpeggiated keyboard and synths, not too dissimilar from runs in Zappa pieces that were in children’s nature and science programming. Shows like 3-2-1 Contact often featured these kinds of compositions (Check 55 seconds into that clip and again at 11:28). The second strain reminds me of music on Miami Vice episodes. Not just “In the Air Tonight,” but particularly music from club scenes or the drive montages of Sonny Crockett set to Jan Hammer’s synths or songs like Al Jarreau’s “Raging Waters.”
Not only are the sounds of Miami Vice a touchstone here, but so are some visual elements. Michael Mann, who created the look of Miami Vice and Manhunter (1986), informs Fever Ray’s videos. Similar to hearing Carpenter synths on shows like Stranger Things, Mann’s visual style has influenced aspects of Drive (2011) and The Guest (2014), particularly the uses of smoke, neon pink, and cool blue colors, and the overall ‘80s nostalgia that popular culture has embraced. And like the tone of Wingard’s The Guest, much of Fever Ray’s visual output is at once monstrous and playful. [If you decide to check out more videos or audio, they are likely NSFW.]
This leads me to the cover. I don’t think the skin carving/black metal font makeup on the cover is meant to be taken seriously, unless you take that kind of thing seriously, and then it’s possibly a warning that this record isn’t for you. Like the videos, in which Dreijer appears in various monstrous guises, there are weighty topics covered here: desire, sexual politics, loss. But like the cover and other visuals promoting this record, it is not without playfulness. These clashing tones and themes will likely make the album uneven and unsettling for some listeners, particularly those interested in cohesion across a record. I find the tensions enjoyable: desire and the grotesque, warmth and sting, human and machine.
“Mustn’t Hurry” and “Falling” remind me of the aforementioned Miami Vice driving sequences, when the show sulked in the silent stoicism of Sonny Crockett, whose bright white or pastel suits were an antithesis to these moody drives. While there are ‘80s synth sounds here, I don’t mean to say that’s all there is. These tracks pack plenty of contemporary sounds and as songs, I find them much more likeable than much of the Vice pop spotlights.
“A Part of Us” features melodic vocals, some robotically filtered. I find this a dazzling pop love song, though it’s edges burn with anger and danger. In recent interviews, Dreijer discusses how the record comes out of becoming a mother, then a divorcée, and then a lesbian, though I get the sense that these are all labels that Dreijer would eschew. The anger (“one hand in yours and one hand in a tight fist”) and danger (“What we are/Brings the wrong kind of attention out here”) come from the policies and violence against same sex relationships in her home country of Sweden.
“IDK About You” opens with electronically manipulated ritualistic percussion, reminiscent of Jane’s Addiction on earlier versions of “Chip Away,” and bursts of melodic vocals, grunts, and whoops. Upon first listen, this was the song that stuck with me the most.
“To the Moon and Back” and “Plunge,” remind me of the arpeggiated melodies I mentioned hearing in certain children’s nature and science programming, but the lyrics (in “Moon”– “Plunge” is instrumental) explicitly explore lust and desire. Both of these tracks have grown on me, and I love that the title track is an instrumental, even though I’m not sure what I like about that. Maybe that it makes the record more of a cypher, in that if I were going to look for some way of conceptualizing the record, that’s an obvious place to start. Instead of being able to bind the record together in some sort of concept, I find the instrumental makes that kind of easy encapsulation difficult, with that difficulty itself, possibly the point.
Although it is not my favorite track, “This Country” — a slow burner, with sleazy keys and an anthemic chorus vocal declaring, “This country makes it hard to fuck”–may offer an entry point for listeners. It is a dark piece about desire, anger, and discriminatory sexual politics, and while I believe the subject matter is important, it is the least interesting track on the album. It grinds and swears, but maybe that’s the point. We’re denied, like those suffering under discriminatory laws, something in the song that could lift us out of it’s oppressive atmosphere. However, after this track, I find the rest of the record delivers manifold pleasures, beginning with the aforementioned “Plunge” to the final whispers of “Mama’s Hand.”
As I stated above, I’m not deep into electronic music or singer/songwriter material, so I hadn’t heard her previous band. I wanted something that I wouldn’t normally pick and a friend suggested this record, which makes me want to dip into the discography more. More information is available at Fever Ray’s website.
Stephen McClurg (Episode 24) writes and teaches in Birmingham, Alabama. He co-hosts The Outrider Podcast, writes at Eunoia Solstice, and infrequently blogs. He has contributed music as a solo artist and with the group Necronomikids to past episodes of The Drunken Odyssey.