How can music be both unsettling and catchy at once? This is the question I kept coming back to as I listened to Fever Ray's self-titled debut, digesting its lyrics and aurally pulling apart its layers of sound. There's no denying the darkness of this album: the music plods along in pulsing low drones and murky synths, punctuated by the clicks, blips, thuds and taps that Karin Dreijer Andersson (along with her brother Olof Dreijer) have become known for in The Knife. Unlike The Knife, however, there is nary a dance beat to be found here: at their most up-tempo, the songs here would produce a mopey goth shuffle (that is, if dancing—which I would not advise—were attempted).
Instead, you might think of this as the album you put on to chill out to after dancing to The Knife: complete lack of dance beats aside, it sounds very much like how one would expect a solo project from The Knife to sound. Andersson, as per usual, is feeding her Nordic pixie voice through effect after effect, her artificially-deepened voice at times fooling you into thinking that perhaps the track was sampled at the wrong rate, at other times, playing a sharp, tinny counterpoint to the various bass hums and rumbles underlying most of the songs. And, as we've come to expect from The Knife, the album is synth-heavy, at times recalling early Cure (and in "Triangle Walks," I swear I hear the traces of the synth sound used in Mike and The Mechanics's "Silent Running"—it's eerie and nostalgic all at once).
One big difference, however, between Fever Ray and The Knife is the exposure that Andersson is allowing. I've seen photos of her. Press photos. (The Knife is well-known for shunning media exposure: playing in masks or behind screens, seldom touring, not granting interviews and having proxies in gorilla masks accept awards for them.) Her website even has a bio section wherein she—stay calm, stay calm—talks about the album. But, as might be expected of a member of The Knife, the discussion of the album is vague and open-ended. While she gives us that the album was composed around the birth of her second child—which seems to come up obliquely in "Concrete Walls," where Andersson seems to be singing about holding her daughter—the only other detail she includes is that she composed the album while exhausted, "where reality blurs into imagination and ideas flutter in and out."
The result, then, is an album that is both claustrophobic—it's clear we're being bounced around inside somebody's headspace, as the lyrics flit from image to image without benefit of transition (to say nothing of the closeness of the voice in the recording: you can hear breaths drawn and the moist noises of a mouth opening)—and isolating—while trapped inside Andersson's subconscious, we are necessarily apart from it. Fittingly, the drawing of Andersson on the cover of the album has her wearing reflective glasses whose reflection indicates she doesn't see us: not only can we not see her eyes, but the reflection is that of leaves, not of any observer. Fever Ray gives us proximity without intimacy: intriguing and addictive, but subtly unsettling.