“I want to love you but you’re not making it easy,” Karen Dreijer Andersson aka Fever Ray sings as Plunge begins. It’s an evocative, wide-open statement about a personal relationship – questions of gender, sexuality, societal constraints, inner inhibitions and personality clashes all come to mind, and for anyone familiar with Dreijer’s body of work, the answer of which is true is clearly “all of the above.”
Defiant of all labels and social constraints, Karen and her sibling Olof pushed sonic and political boundaries with their always-evolving project The Knife for four constantly-improving albums, officially retiring the group in 2014. Between albums, under her solo moniker, Fever Ray, Dreijer continued to explore sound with innovation and creativity, her voice a constantly-fluctuating mercurial instrument, pitch-shifting and wide-ranging from cool, icy whispers to towering, volcanic booms. Now, almost a decade since the self-titled album Fever Ray, she’s released Plunge, a lean and confident continuation of her sense of musical space, tone, texture and talent. It’s an album filled with nuance, concept and vision, built around sensory overload and stimulation, loaded with imagery, emotion and electrocuted bliss.
Opening with ‘Wanna Sip’, Plunge begins quickly, rapidly and without bullshit – in an age of extended intros, bloated track-listings and six minute songs that should be three, ‘Wanna Sip’ defies those trends, a breezy and fast-paced beginning that gives the following tracks room to breathe without feeling monotonous. Dreijer’s vocals are layered, commanding and attention-grabbing, clap-percussion snapping, the composition taking off explosively, a sense of rising, a building taking place, foundations lain. Plunge leaps right in, the energy of the entire album made clear from the start. “It goes for all of us, you’re not curious? I don’t think you should hang with us. A bad habit, intoxicating, I know I’ve got to let you go,” she booms, a mission statement for Plunge, an album highly fixated around letting preconceived hang-ups, notions and fears of sexuality and gender roles go.
‘Mustn’t Hurry’ is one of the slowest songs on the album, yet it’s still danceable, grooving and swaying. “Saw the blood, but – it’s not scary,” she sings. It’s a song filled with curiosity, interest and fascination, Dreijer’s constant message of welcoming change, exploration and expansion on display, the music reaching and feeling wide, expansive, full of landscapes and place, nocturnal and fetal. It’s the sound of something developing, growing, and as she sings of babies, pushing boundaries and sticking things in, it’s a perfect moment of lyrics melding with music to explain one another, to complement one another, to tell different parts of the same story.
Part of what made Fever Ray unique was its sense of connection to something organic, tangible and physical despite the electronic sheen and polish. Plunge dives deeper into the icier electro territories of The Knife, but maintains that feeling – one of dirt under the fingernails, setting sunlight in the eyes, fresh air in the lungs. ‘A Part of Us’ continues that vibe, lines about digging and plowing feeling both sexual and sensual. From the lyrics to the title itself, Plunge is mired in the physical, constantly feeling, constantly doing, constantly touching. It explores sexual and violent imagery with equal ease and poise, the visceral nature of grabbing, sensing, experiencing the world around you, yourself and the people in it, the relation that all of these things have to each other – Plunge feels as connected as the wires from synths to MIDI consoles are.
Much of Dreijer’s specialty comes from the ability to make the isolating and the strange somehow inviting and familiar, and Plunge is a textured, electrifying listen. The five minute “Falling” simulates the feeling of the title wonderfully, her vocals lower in the mix, bass thumping as synths rip and shimmer, distortion and loops fuzzing in the ground of the song. “That old feeling of shame, she makes me feel dirty again.” It’s falling love; it’s falling into something larger than yourself; it’s immersing, losing track of things, giving into an experience or a relationship that changes something, and it embraces that transformation. When her voice rises, it soars, powerful and enrapturing, and as ‘Falling’ trickles down, “IDK Know About You” kicks in, the drums primal, pelvic, the vocals fast and pressed against the ceiling. “I know the way to fantasy, the world of dreams, the place to be,” she states. “Let’s push and tweak, let our spirits meet.” Moans sampled in the background slice through plucking strings and vibrating percussion, incredibly reminiscent of the faster tempo songs on The Knife’s Shaking the Habitual.
“It’s not hard to love me,” she coos between blasts of pressured air and bass on ‘This Country’, a chest-rattling song that’s one of the most straightforwardly political to be found on the album. “This country makes it hard to fuck,” she shouts over and over again, the connotations for such a seemingly brash and straightforward lyric surprisingly sweeping – issues of feminism, birth control, social norms and religious shame are all intertwined into the song and feelings expressed. Plunge is an erotically-driven album, all senses regularly aroused by its sounds, designed to make the blood rush, to make the brain activate, and that attempt at crafting something unapologetically sexual from the female perspective is in its own right a political and social statement, a clear shot at negating the idea that for women in music, sex either has to be euphemistic or without artistic merit, a ridiculous and toxically misogynistic double standard applied across almost all genres. Fever Ray is as artsy as ever, and Karen Dreijer is as artistically minded as ever, all the while being as carnal and kinetic as ever.
Title track ‘Plunge’ lacks any vocals at all, the longest song on the record and yet feeling half of its five and a half minute length – it’s fast, energetic and propulsive, shooting the listener forward, and for the next song to be titled ‘To the Moon and Back’ feels like a brilliant moment of concept, the wordless heights reached and floating off and away. ‘To the Moon and Back’ debuted as the lead single with an over the top, unsubtle and magically filthy video, featuring piss, domination and group sexual activity without batting an eye, the music charmingly foreign, exotic and happy. It’s blissful, not shame-based; it’s embracing, not aggressive. In context of the album, ‘To the Moon and Back’ is fantastic, continuing the percussively-minded sound of the record and the lyrics of romance and eroticism peaking, as explicit and as intoxicatingly head over heels as any others waiting to found.
‘Red Trails’ features a romantically tragic string section, the lyrics full of heartbreak and one-sided passion, Karen’s raw vocals at their absolute best. Throughout the entirety of Plunge, Dreijer’s vocals are left bare, filtered but never noticeably pitch-altered like they’ve been on past projects. The effect is a powerful one – her vocals are a raw, human guide through the neon wilds of the album, a tether to hold on to and a regular point of empathy. On ‘Red Trails’, her delivery is reminiscent of The Knife’s ‘Ready to Lose‘, full of feeling and deep-seated expression. It’s the most compositionally organic track on Plunge, and it’s the one with the most sadness – even without noticing the lyrics, it’d be impossible to hear her vocals and not feel the pain spoken of in them. The use of strings and rattling percussion is moving, all of the instruments – her voice included – combining to craft something truly special. “Setting the snow on fire” is one of the most striking pieces of lyrical imagery on the album, impossible to overlook, a direct callback to the first self-titled album’s ‘I’m Not Done’. “This too shall pass, under the moon we last.”
Part of ‘An Itch’ was featured in a promo video for the album, and it’s one of the most cinematic, atmospheric and engulfing tracks on it – it’s a clear stand-out, her vocals low, booming and goosebump-causing. On every single song, Plunge causes you to be aware of your body and senses, aware of your ability to feel through signals of electricity – rather than robotic, off-putting and hard to connect to, Plunge uses electronic music production to feel like neurons carrying electrical signals to the brain. ‘An Itch’ is a full-bodied, no frills explosion of sensation, and as Dreijer sings of people touching, you can almost feel it happening – Fever Ray’s ability to not only describe but to palpably communicate what it is to feel, what it is to experience, is unparalleled. Plunge is some of the most sensually explosive and engaging music out there, dancing and tingling, pulsing and throbbing, moving and awakening.
‘Mama’s Hand’ is a fantastic closer, not losing any of the constant energy of the tracks before it but bringing the tone down, the feeling darker, closer to the ground after the blinding highs of songs like ‘To the Moon and Back’ or ‘An Itch’. Built around loops, it rides out satisfyingly, and when it ends, it feels like it could have kept going – at forty five minutes, Plunge never wears out its welcome, and it’s better off for it. For an album so focused on stimulation of all kinds, if it went on for too long, it would become taxing, but it doesn’t. Instead, it’s a perfect length, taking the listener on a journey and providing depth without making the ride become numbing.
A worthy addition to the stellar body of work Karen has created, Plunge is a synesthetic delight, an album loaded with colours and sounds, images and feelings, things to catch your fingers on, things to have stuck in your head, things to sift around in. It’s immersive, vivid and pulsating, emphatically and joyfully alive. It’s impossible to feel asleep or unaware while listening to it; every song works in tandem with the rest to command attention, to engage the senses, to get under the skin and tease, tickle, grip and stimulate, power cords plugged into the brain. It’s dirty, and it’s happy to be; we’re all animals, all organic creatures created by sexuality and born into the earth, hands reaching, eyes opening, ears listening, voices screaming.
Like the title would imply, it leaps into something and comes back up with all it can find, excited and manic, thrilling and ecstatic. It’s one of the most distinct and fully-formed albums of the year from one of the most distinct and fully-formed artists of the century so far. Through a nonstop assault of electronic and synthetic sound, Karen Dreijer as Fever Ray has created a fantastically and irrefutably human-feeling work of emotionally-charged, sweat-coated art.