Fever Ray Explores the Complexities of Love on Radical Romantics

The Swedish experimental artist unveils newfound perspectives on queer desire and comfort through their latest record of moody synthpop

Music Reviews Fever Ray
Fever Ray Explores the Complexities of Love on Radical Romantics

It starts with fear, because that’s present even in pleasure. As a phantom synth melody swirls between channels in the mix, Karin Dreijer’s lyrics return to the same uneasy question: “Did you hear what they call us?” On this line, the synth briefly ceases its looping ascent, transforming into an arpeggio that descends back into itself, as if retreating into guardedness. It’s the constant reminder that comes with queer romance—the ever-lingering threat of oppression, violent opposition that could be around any corner. It’s the type of dread that breeds self-protective instincts, even in the most vulnerable states, manifested in the “plan” Dreijer discloses in response: “Don’t get stuck anywhere.”

“What They Call Us” hangs a pall over the rest of Radical Romantics, the third album from Dreijer’s solo project Fever Ray. Though Dreijer’s slippery experimental synthpop record never explicitly returns to the social peril of this opener, it looms like a latent hitch to queer desire, a subconscious state that must be confronted to achieve unguarded connection. It’s a thread made all the clearer in a stray aside on second track “Shiver,” with Dreijer interrupting their lustful lyrics with a simple question: “Can I trust you?” It’s a question of unclear directness—is it asked in actual conversation, or to themselves in thought?—but one that places all its impact in unambiguous baggage, holding the tacit hesitancy that comes after past hurt.

Dreijer’s music has always been dealt in the conflicting states of precarity and openness that come from their place as a queer songwriter. On The Knife’s Silent Shout, their voice often morphed into polyphonic extremes, harmonizing with itself at multiple octaves, while their lyrics touched on gender-based violence and state-sanctioned repression. Plunge, their last solo outing as Fever Ray, similarly rewired their artistic sensibilities, unabashedly delving into the inherently revolutionary nature of queer sex and kink. (Dreijer also came out as genderqueer in the press following the release of Plunge, putting the candid nature of the record into new context.) But Radical Romantics sees them fully exploring the intersection of these preoccupations with a complexity only hinted at before. If Shaking the Habitual was gender theory for the club, Radical Romantics is bell hooks for the bedroom—navigating the intricacies and vulnerabilities of seeking stability in desire and love with an unapologetically freaky queer streak.

If all this seems like it could become too heady, it’s worth emphasizing that Dreijer penetrates these themes with pop songwriting that cuts to the chase like a forthright come-on. For all their uncertain trust on “Shiver,” Dreijer and their brother/former bandmate Olof infuse the song with a deep, bubbly bounce, as if to prove that the track’s unquenchable thirst remains even through anxiety. “Carbon Dioxide” captures the dizzying rush of falling in love with the energy of a surrealist rave, Dreijer turning their literal big vocal effect dial that says “gender” to cartoonish falsetto echoes. There’s also the most direct way Dreijer talks about sex on the album on “North”: “It’s a way to thrive.”

What makes Radical Romantics, like the best of Dreijer’s work, a cut above merely great pop is its subversive streak. Their lyricism is unapologetically queer while sidestepping empty platitudes, more often nodding to the knotted complexities of queer and trans people’s existence against marginalization and endangerment. The industrial stomp of the Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross-produced “Even It Out” acts as vengeful retribution against sexism and transphobia passed down across generations, with Dreijer doling out threats to their child’s bully, Lydia Tár-style. Elsewhere, Dreijer deals in frank, coded statements: “we don’t come with a manual,” they say of queer sexuality not being taught as the norm on “Looking For A Ghost.” “Kandy,” sounding like a Deep Cuts track remixed by Moth-era Chairlift, finds Dreijer looking at the comfort queer people can find in romance and sex in their bluntest demand on the record: “We deserve rest.”

But, in keeping with Dreijer’s everlasting refusal to simplify complicated subject matter, Radical Romantics increasingly dwells in the difficulties that come with opening oneself up and the work in maintaining amorous relationships. “Looking For A Ghost” arrives at the record’s midpoint like a plea for romantic balance in a landscape where it feels impossible, its hook a sigh of “Looking for a ghost/In the midst of life.” “Touching Fingers,” a song Dreijer describes as “maybe the saddest song [I] have ever written,” inhabits the moment of sensing a relationship dissolving, possibly for good. Their voice, wounded, presses another, repeating, “Let me know/If this is the last day,” lingering on how touch and communication between the lovers are fraying. The answer never comes, but the division Dreijer observed speaks multitudes on its own.

When words fall short, though, Dreijer knows just when to let the sound of Radical Romantics do the talking. The wordless pitch-shifted wails that haunt the periphery of “Shiver” come to mind, hovering like a swarm of shrill, horny banshees. Closer “Bottom Of The Ocean”—a composition originally conceived for a 2011 staging of Ingmar Bergman’s The Hour of the Wolf—contains no lyrics, instead drifting around a repeating vocalization that rises and falls like gentle breaths. Radical Romantics ends, in a way, like the evocative negative space of an unanswered question. The repeated uncertainty of “Tapping Fingers” is never given definitive resolution, leaving “Bottom Of The Ocean” solitary, left to ruminate and pick up the pieces, forming its own kind of new stable ground.

In considering where Radical Romantics concludes, it feels especially remarkable that—for an album inextricably rooted in queer love and gender identity—the record as a whole never feels chained to a singular conception of itself, its mood, or how it can answer the question of what makes for secure queer intimacy. At times, it can be as melancholic and introspective as it can be dancey and euphoric. Radical Romantics can often feel just as freeing to listen to as it was for Dreijer to make—a process that they frequently note in interviews as one that liberates them from constantly thinking about their gender, an escape from the world’s constant reminders of gendered oppression toward trans people especially.

The most revealing stretch, in fact, might be at the peak of “Carbon Dioxide.” As the track swells and builds, it pauses for a moment, before plunging headlong into a punchier blast of bass and synth, bursting with a contagious sense of the very life desire is built upon. With the more downcast final stretch of the record that follows “Carbon Dioxide,” this moment becomes the album’s last gasp of ecstatic release. Yet it charges into that climactic frenzy with the carefree elation of possibility, like the promise of stable love rests just beyond the rush. Even in the face of apprehension, Fever Ray has never surveyed their own future with this much conviction.

Natalie Marlin is a freelance music and film writer based in Minneapolis who has contributed to sites such as Stereogum, Little White Lies and Bitch Media, and previously wrote as a staff writer at Allston Pudding. She also regularly appears on the Indieheads Podcast. Follow her on Twitter at @NataliesNotInIt.

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