Sustaining a remarkable degree of structural tension over the course of its brief song cycle, Fever Ray, the first solo outing from Karin Dreijer Andersson, is an album built upon contrasts. Most notably, Andersson’s Fever Ray persona draws attention to her work as half of the Knife, whose Silent Shout is among the most acclaimed albums in recent memory. Whereas the Knife is ostensibly a dance act, Fever Ray emphasizes tone over rhythm. Even when the tempo picks up on “Now’s the Only Time I Know” and standout “Seven,” the delicacy of the instrumentation, particularly the mallet percussion on the former, strips away the ominous, rumbling basslines that propelled Silent Shout forward, and the arrhythmic structures slither around a 4/4 meter rather than embracing a time signature that lends itself to dance.
Instead, the focus here is on Andersson’s oblique narratives and the startling, stark electronic distortions she uses on her vocal tracks. These dramatic, often inhuman-sounding shifts in range only heighten the palpable sense of dread on the Knife’s macabre songs, but here the same production trick serves a different but no less effective purpose: to draw attention to the minimalism and surprising pop bent of the songs. With its refrain of “Give me more/Give me more/Give me more,” spectacular lead single “If I Had a Heart” is written as a straightforward pop song about romantic longing. What gives the song its complexity is the way Andersson’s vocal is pushed into a grim baritone range that works with the equally distorted, bottomed-out melodic line that turns the song’s refrain (“If I had a voice I would sing”) into an fascinating bit of self-reflection. From its opening notes, the album proves that Andersson and her producers (Christopher Berg, who has mixed much of the Knife’s output, and the duo Van Rivers & the Subliminal Kid) understand how to use these choices to define a distinct, purposeful aesthetic, rather than simply using them as a gimmick.
It’s the minimalism of the lyrics here that makes the production job so essential to the overall tone of the project. It isn’t much of a stretch to imagine Taylor Swift singing the line, “He came back one day/And told me stories that I now dream of” which opens the song “Coconut,” but it’s the ghostly soundscape and the way Andersson’s vocal track is obscured in the mix that transforms the song into something informed by a genuine anxiety, rather than into a Top 40 pop trifle. “Concrete Walls” could have been a rather maudlin take on new motherhood, but with the vocals pushed into a masculine register, the song teems with a post-partum depression and real menace. With Andersson’s exaggerated phrasing, cockeyed lyrics that draw from a child’s perspective (“I put my soul into what I do/Last night I drew a funny man/With dog eyes and a hanging tongue”), and ethereal sonic loops, “When I Grow Up” recalls Homogenic-era Björk.
Each of these stylistic decisions work equally well, and what impresses most about Fever Ray is that none of the choices are obvious. Armed with these particular songs, Andersson could have just as easily made her own version of the kind of accomplished but accessible pop albums that have been coming out of her native Sweden over the last decade. Instead, she’s recorded something far denser and more challenging. Had Andersson not already made a similar point about form and content with the Knife, Fever Ray might function even more successfully as a stand-alone solo project. But that’s a minor complaint against an album that’s hard to shake.