2009 has been a peculiar year for music – well, a strange year for just about everything, really. Recessionary forces have influenced and implicated society – and culture – deeply. Even more so for the music “industry” which has been playing catch-up since the mid-Noughties, against the collapse of physical sales and the growth of online piracy. Against this bleak, neo-liberal background, artists have to fight harder in order to protect their vision, their epistemic, in a world that encourages artists to embrace product placements as way to which they can recoup lost album sales. These pressures weigh harder when a market is in decline.
There are just a few artists for whom I hold utmost respect – artists who through their own stubbornness create their own environment – their own reality. This reality may be something so exotic that it is incomprehensible; a reality that’s disgorged of materiality; its vision out of flux with general consensus. This is complicated – for some, the grandness of spectacle or the Baudrillardian hyperreality of Gaga is enough, but truly letting go is far deeper and more profound than purely exhibitionism. It is agitative. It impetuses others to think.
In a year in which bands continued the theme of abstraction, oracularity or the psychedelic (see Washed Out, Rainbow Arabia, Chairlift etc). or the pure ‘pop’ of Lady Gaga, Karin Dreijer Andersson was instead looking deeply inward. The debut from Fever Ray is an album without brashness or fantasy, but instead an affecting longevity and emotional core; it lacks immediacy because, like the best albums, there is a symbiotic relationship between it and the listener. It is a triumph in a year in which creativity was embargoed for a falser sense of commercial reality.
It was letting go and then some: recorded in the immediate months after the birth of her second child, in the most affecting hours of the morning. It both was and wasn’t what we had come to expect from one-half of The Knife. The reassuring distorted shrills cushioned by all manner of synths were there, but the darkness was taken to the nth degree. There was no holding Karin back from unleashing the frenzy that is her psyche, meaning that the terror-Eurodance of The Knife was eschewed for a tense, organic electronic sound. The album toyed with concepts and ideas that came from a consciousness deprived of sleep. These concepts were played out in even greater vocal distortion than the œuvre of The Knife, mimicking the different facets of this consciousness.
In the album-opener – and first single – If I Had a Heart – the grating monotone repeating “more, give me more, give me more”matched with its organ and its hesitant drums seemed to resonate with its external environment. An economy in disarray caused by the pursuit of more; consumption gone mad, feelings subjugated by greed and power. The video directed by Andreas Nilsson is equally as hypnotic and terrifying, channeling Jim Jarmusch’s Dead Man with the Meshes of the Afternoon of Maya Deren. Nilsson and Dreijer Andersson also talked about The Jonestown Massacre – the 1978 mass “revolutionary” suicide pact – when exchanging ideas for the visual realisation of the song. There is something of a dark cult to the album in itself, with its mundane ritualistic proclivities and Dreijer Andersson as its charasmatically odd (anti-)leader. When I Grow Up presented the moodier side of puberty, the quiet incendiary who exists in their own world – waiting for the world to understand, to “embrace me” as Dreijer Anderrson ends the song. The video by Martin de Thurrah played with the cult element of teenage, an entranced girl summoning up the Shamonic spirits in her backgarden pool whilst a beguiled old man looks on in fear and confusion. Suburban, lonely and misunderstood, the video is a rejoinder to adult autocracy. Almost half the album has been released as a single (repackaged with two additional songs) or accompanied by an impressive video. There is something pretty unorthodox about this in itself – a self-belief that every track on the album is worthy in its own right – with each videorealising the bounty of narratives at play. Normal play expects an album punctuated with a few key singles, but then “normal” is an adjective unknown to the album.
In interviews, Karin spoke of Phil Collins’s drumming on In The Air Tonight, the speedboating in Miami Vice, and Eighties new poppers Alphaville. These all seem to be more about emotive moments in time; “raw feelings,” as she said in her Dummy interview a while ago. Probably worth reading , temporal and unexplainable, which go to the heart of the Fever Ray project. Its experimentation with enthnomusicology via synthetic sounds and its reference points: the destruction of Aboriginal homelands, Stephen King’s ‘The Shining’, Houdini all seem to inhabit that same reality of Fever Ray. Fever Ray is the logical continuation of Kate Bush’s ‘The Dreaming’ in its maddening femininity. It speaks of feelings – not the standardised emoting purveyed in almost every “love” song – but actual feelings. Of the sort that you might be scared to talk about, the sort that might make you feel anxious, or giddy, or joyful. Those that manifest themselves physically. The real terror in the album is not the actual reality she describes but the allusion to feelings that probably cannot and never will be explainable. In many ways whilst the vocalisation is genderless this album could only ever be made by an embracement of femininity in its unrestraint, its unawareness.
The rawest of feelings were translated into a live show co-produced with Andreas Nilsson. Unlike the scarcity of The Knife’s touring, Fever Ray has embraced playing live, undertaking European and North American tours as well as playing some international festivals. The show itself is a mixture of the visual elements we’d seen in the videos: lampshades from If I Had A Heart video synchronised with the music, co-ordinated lazer play, smoke, refracted lights, and the band all in costume with Karin in a tribal, cocoon-like outfit seen in the Johan Rencke promotional pics. Attempting to verbalise it would not do it justice, but its intrigue is in the friction that exists between Pagan ritual and an Eighties idea of the future – particularly Blade Runner. The live element to the show is the fruition of the project, pure theatre played out in front of her fans.
I was lucky enough to see the show five times throughout the year, including the recent finale at The Forum. I was forwarded a FT.com review of that show which argued that Dreijer Andersson was the anti-Gaga in the year of the Gaga, claiming that there was “a difference between being interestingly mysterious and frustratingly mystifying…” and that they yearned for some “Gaga-brashness.” Somehow, Fever Ray and Lady Gaga perfectly act as counterpoints and indicators of 2009’s musical scene. Yes, I could try and argue for more leftfield or obscure acts but Gaga’s brand of vaccuous pop seems to sum up a year in popular music, in which pomp and spectacle have pervaded and obfuscated the music itself. A year in which idealogues battle it out with aesthetes. Stranger even is the way in which Gaga’s overtly stylised videos and costume are embued with a faux-conceptualism, and that the media somehow misconstrue the peculiarity of Dreijer Andersson as being similar to that promoted by Gaga. So whilst Dreijer Andersson has argued that her pursuit of privacy and mystery is in the best interests of the listener because by explaining the music it “destroys their own interpretation … their possibility to have their own ideas.” You equally have the Lady Gagagian conceptualism-as-branding; music explained in great detail – every minutiae; ideas and concepts being force-fed to the listener (consumer?). In the end there is no learning curve, just the purely aesthetic. A vacant symbolism, even.
Fever Ray is about the self-discovery of the human character – that crazy learning curve called growing up – meaning its overarching theme is inescapably humanistic. It highlights a darker, Freudian side to the human character. Peculiar thoughts that permeate our cognitive behaviour which we are equally unable to ignore or embrace. Maybe that is why the album is so deeply intriguing because it sounds and acts like no other album this year, or in the last decade (including The Knife’s.). It inhabits its own environment, but that place is still rich in life. A welcoming, skewed idealism: That little voice in my head says uh-oh-oh.
We interviewed FEVER RAY a while ago. Probably worth reading.