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Fever Ray's 'Radical Romantics' explores love in all of its freaky, complicated forms

In their work as Fever Ray, artist Karin Dreijer has used eerie, experimental pop music to excavate love's more complicated or marginalized incarnations.
Nina Andersson
In their work as Fever Ray, artist Karin Dreijer has used eerie, experimental pop music to excavate love's more complicated or marginalized incarnations.

"An honorable human relationship — that is, one in which two people have the right to use the word 'love,' " the feminist poet Adrienne Rich once wrote, "is a process, delicate, violent, often terrifying to both persons involved, a process of refining the truths they can tell each other." Are those the words you'd use to describe romance: delicate, violent, terrifying? Perhaps not. In the face of a more traditional, or more culturally consumable, conception of romance — a candlelit dinner on Feb. 14, a classic boy-meets-girl rom-com, a dozen roses, butterflies in your stomach — Rich's vision might feel downright radical, a sharp and urgent reminder of the power of a different approach: one that's more nuanced, more deliberate and perhaps ultimately more rewarding.

In their work as Fever Ray, artist Karin Dreijer has long been finely attuned to Rich's definition of love, using their eerie, experimental pop music to excavate its more complicated or marginalized incarnations. Fever Ray's icy, alluring self-titled debut was created in the isolating haze of new parenthood; the follow-up, 2017's magnificent Plunge, is a thrilling and righteous exploration of queer eroticism. Radical Romantics, Fever Ray's new record, looks at love even more broadly: romantic connection, sexual desire, the making of family, the fostering of community, the rewards of commitment. It is interested in love not as a destination but, as Rich would put it, an ongoing process, and gives a glimpse into the many approaches — bravado and vulnerability, experimentation and hesitation, violence and delicacy — that process requires.

What might make romance radical? For starters, Fever Ray's world feels largely unrestricted by the norms of gender. Dreijer's shape-shifting vocals have been a staple of their music since their time as one-half of The Knife, the subversive and now defunct pop duo they formed with their brother Olof. This practice of pitch-shifting and vocal processing allows them to perform femininity, masculinity, androgyny — sometimes all in the same song, sometimes all at once. "Music works for me as a totally open space," they told Pitchfork recently. "I do not have to think about gender so much, which is amazing, because in real life, you have to think about it all the time."

That sense of queer freedom is everywhere on Radical Romantics — in the delightfully ungendered pet names ("smoothie," "bird seed") on "Looking For A Ghost"; the sapphic eroticism of "Shiver"; the depth of their delivery on "Tapping Fingers" or the girlish helium voice on "Carbon Dioxide." It's perhaps most striking in the androgynous characters Dreijer portrays in their music videos — as in "Kandy," where they play both roles in a freaky, sensual encounter: both the bored, suit-wearing office drone in a club's dimly lit room and the grotesque, glitter-speckled, balding singer who libidinously performs for them, eventually tying them to the chair with a mic cable and earning a smile. As in much of Dreijer's works, there are no obvious gender roles or puritanical sexual norms to be found in the video, and Dreijer's obfuscation of these classic romantic tropes makes the aching, thirsty emotional core of the work even clearer.

Where Plunge playfully clanged and thrilled and fantasized — an urgent, intense, often frenetically paced record — the heartbeat of Radical Romantics is somewhat slower, its mood more pensive. Dreijer tapped a number of co-producers for the record, including their brother Olof, who imbues tracks like "What They Call Us" and "Shiver" with many of the startling, squiggling synths and syncopated beats that have become a hallmark of their collaborations. "Looking For A Ghost" is propulsive, thanks to Portuguese batida DJ and producer Nídia, yet still inquisitive. And there's a haunted quality to tracks like "North," where production from Nine Inch Nails' Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross add industrial grit and crunch, and "Tapping Fingers," where washes of synth, courtesy of Swedish production duo Aasthma, advance and retreat under Dreijer's forlorn voice.

The more reflective tone and pacing fits the record's lyrical perspective, where romance is never presented as a given or a sure thing — another trope Dreijer gently admonishes. Instead, they demonstrate the care and resolve that goes into maintaining these forms of love: the decisions, the needs, the boundaries, the mistakes, the courage. The first line of Radical Romantics is an apology — "First I'd like to say that I'm sorry" — on a song that ultimately turns into a declaration of vulnerability: "The person who came here was broken." Elsewhere on the record, there are sensitive questions — "Can I trust you?"; "Is this feeling true?" — and sincere requests: "Be nice to me"; "Be still and patient"; "Let me know." And when Dreijer does sing candidly about desire, otherwise straightforwardly sensual lyrics can land with a twist, on another plane entirely from romantic cliché. A line like, "She laid me down and whispered / all girls want kandy," in Dreijer's unsettlingly measured delivery, feels miles away from a bubblegum pop hit; when they whisper-sing, "In the whole wide world / there's no place I'd rather be / than with you" in their lower register, it sounds not like an escapist fantasy but like the result of careful, mature consideration.

That's not to say there aren't moments of intensity on Radical Romantics, too. On "Even It Out," Dreijer fantasizes about getting revenge on their kid's high school bully: "There's no room for you / and we know where you live," Dreijer sings, "one day we might come after you / taking back what's ours." (It reminds me of a scene from the film Tár, where Cate Blanchett, as the title character, seeks out her child's bully on the playground. "If you ever do it again," she warns the young perpetrator in a frank, cool tone, "I'll get you.") Dreijer had originally called out the bully by their actual name in the song, but changed it after a friend said it was disturbing to hear an adult threatening a child. Still, in its own way, could that be radical love, too — transgressing a taboo out of loyalty or the desire to protect? ("Violent, often terrifying," as Rich wrote, indeed.) Elsewhere, on the hedonistic headrush of "Carbon Dioxide," production by the British experimental artist and producer Vessel makes the song feel urgent and arena-sized, with bright synths that ping-pong around Dreijer's many voices.

Overall, if Dreijer shows love to be the result of anything on Radical Romantics, it's the hard work of patience. Dreijer has described much of the album as being about the "radical acceptance of what you need to feel safe and loved." That acceptance, they say, "brings you a stillness, but it also brings you a sadness": It means recognizing what doesn't work for you and being able to say no. The album ends in that place: with a seven-minute composition, originally written more than a decade ago for an Ingmar Bergman play, that feels, at times, both stirring and meditative. The song unfurls with gentle swells and wordless vocalizing and comes to feel like a resting place. It is slightly sad — a fitting place to say goodbye to the things that love is not. After nine tracks of asking, wanting, waiting, pushing, finding, searching, enjoying, it is fitting that Radical Romantics ends with a song of stillness, and a model of the radical acceptance that might be found there.

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