Fever Ray exists in a fever dream, a shamanic underworld where beats and bleeps, earthy grounded lyrics and ethereal magick chants reach up into the stars, invoking an otherworldly state of being. This is doors of perception territory, this is Hunter S Thompson’s Bat Country, this is what was playing in the bar when Burroughs talked to his alien Mugwump friends. As soon as Fever Ray enters the atmosphere, the ground shifts and the energy moves differently. They make music that makes you wonder if there might be a gila monster round the corner being petted by a Burroughsian Mugwump who is feeding it sweet meats while it eyes up the juicy crowd around it with a razor-blade smile.
This is bitter but strong medicine. Let’s face it the best medicine is not sweet and has a bit of a kick to it. This is the aqua vit of music, that shot of something to fix you up and set you right. Fever Ray is Karin Dreijer’s artistic persona, and Fever Ray is the closest music has to a psychedelic artistic genius in 2023. This is not a band, it is a movement, and their new album, Radical Romantics (released March 10th, on Rabid Records) has got me falling head over heels in love with its sound and philosophy. Fever Ray has something to say, and says it with alien aplomb.
I used to play Fever Ray back in the early 2000s when they had a hit with When I Grow Up. I would sing it with the children, them not knowing that I didn’t feel ‘grown up’ either. We were growing up together. I wanted those ‘crab claws and bottles of rum’ by the sea, and the plants on my window sill to water. Me and the children were three people dreaming of growing up and into a life that was better than what it was in that moment, or at least different, none of us had become who we were meant to be. I was a semi realized dreamer, protecting what I loved the most. The longing of that fragile piece of tranced-out beauty remains in Fever Ray’s work today, albeit in a semi-realized state, and we have grown up together. Fever Ray and I are at a similar stage of life. I know that dark anger that now infuses their voice and lyrics, and I vibe with that new powerful rage of protective violence that runs through the new album.
The baby shaman summoning up her future in When I Grow Up, with that innocent longing for the world to be how they wanted it, has morphed into something more powerful, something partly denied. Fever Ray has grown up into a more powerful creature, a more alien life form. The future is here, yet they are still molding it, alchemically forging it into something that slides into place with their rare beauty and the way their soul moves and is moved. They have embraced and been embraced by that heart beat thumping of the drums and bass, and wooed by a thousand different dreams, all of which can be seen both realized and in the process of becoming in their outstanding new album, Radical Romantics.
The trance-beats, the heavy drum and bass escapades and the chant-like vocals remain. Without the heavy beats and bleeps and the grounding of the bass the songs would spiral off into another dimension, missing outer space entirely. The forward propulsion of the songs, balanced with a cool nordic breeziness and the heaviness of the background sound, combined the attitude-adjusting fury lyrics is beyond radical. This is the most important psychedelic offering since Hüsker Dü released Zen Arcade in 1984. There are points where it is so weird I don’t know if I can keep listening to it, as I feel as if I am falling into someone else’s psyche and through their own personal door of perception, yet so good and satisfying I couldn’t stop listening even if I wanted to.
The album opens with What They Call Us, which serves as an opportunity for Fever Ray to set out their metaphorical and philosophical stall. The dichotomy of being a mother and an artist, and how the world expects you to be and how you actually are, is a dangerous tightrope to walk. The edit of “don’t get stuck” and “don’t stop anywhere” is fine advice. It is the radical notion of “Mummy’s gotta work/See the land” combined with the outraged questioning of ‘did you hear what they called us?” which hammers the conundrum home. Fever Ray has something important to say, and in this song asks if we can have compassion and fix the broken, while they spread their protective wings over their people.
Fever Ray and their tribe is not one which is going to be bullied into submission. This might be the most important question to ask in our brave new cold world, where the only ones to really feel are now alien and out of the ordinary. To be unfeeling is common. To care is radical and yes, romantic too. This is not the usual romance, this is loving the broken. This is a protective fierce violent romance. This is not our parent’s hippy trippy 60s peace love and understanding: this is a love to fight for, and it sounds glorious and radically heavy. They call ‘us’ a lot of things, but we don’t care: we are strong together. Gabba gabba hey: you are one of us, like the Ramones once sang, is the order of the day. Fever Ray is calling out to her tribe, calling us in to worship and to gain strength in numbers, telling us that we are not alone. The album opens as it means to go on: saying something important in an interesting and attention grabbing, and yes, beautiful way.
Shiver has the best use of a woodwind instrument since Patti Smith picked up a clarinet in CBGBs. Plenty of reverb, and a lighter touch has the listener shivering in pleasure. This track hits all the right notes. We might have grown up and have people calling us ‘mommy’, but there is still that deep longing to be made to shiver with “needle highs and girls with ‘thick thighs’. The deeply sensual playfulness of the track lifts the energy level and drags us into Fever Ray’s radical notion of romanticism. It is so deeply satisfying as a queer woman to hear a sexy sapphic tune be done so well, and unapologetically.
New Utensils explores the tools of ritual and magick. If you give a witch salt, bread and wine you give them power. This spell has a different recipe of ‘pepper, sand and salt’ but Fever Ray is claiming the control anway. The bouncy reverb builds up into a rising fall of climax and troughs of respite. Listening we become entranced: we are TS Elliot’s ‘patient etherized upon a table’ bringing to mind the line from The Love Song of Alfred J Prufrock: “I know the voices dying with a dying fall beneath the music from a farther room.” This is the music playing in that further room, this is that echo, that whisper we are trying to hear that is just beyond hearing, this is what we long to to tune to and drop out into. Finally the curtain is being drawn away and we see what we failed to see: unique and alien beauty, total compassion and absolute acceptance.
Kandy launches into a more conventional romanticism full of realized sapphic desires. The melody is a thing of delicate beauty and the Nico-esque deep voiced vocals are lush and gorgeous. I Want Candy, by Bow Wow Wow with its beachy candy cane poppy lightness is invoked by the lover in Fever Ray’s Kandy…but this is Kandy with a K, this is candy with a twist, but still with all of that desire and longing for that sweet taste. The ‘wood and fire’, sharing a new book together, laying down together, swimming, physical desire – all these things are the universal, whether it is heterosexual lust on a beach with Bow Wow Wow, or something rarer and more sapphic. The looping synth and flute swoops with the waves of desire, and pulls the track towards something closer to Candy Says by the Velvet Underground, and away from bubblegum pop but still with a dose of doo wop. This track is alt art pop at its best.
Even It Out veers towards a punk sensibility which suits Fever Ray to the ground. There are so many kinds of radical love, but perhaps the most powerful is the love that we have for our children. This love overwhelms and is a love of violent defense and protection. With a mother like Fever Ray, the bully Zacharias had better watch his hair and his neck…they might well just cut cut cut to protect their chicks . This is no young person’s love. This is a grown up lizard mother love. This is T Rex momma love. This is a love informed by a mind not searching to open doors, but living between worlds of a radical nature and of the home and hearth. This love is a thing of great beauty. The image of Fever Ray in the video pissing on the grave of the kid who bullied her kid in high school made me whoop with joy. Even aliens, even freaks, in fact especially aliens and freaks and artists, love their babies and do so with a particular fierceness. I know that dangerously protective love very well. It makes you ‘figure it out’ just like Fever Ray sings. It could make a mother do extreme things. In fact this is an album of extremes – it does nothing in half measures. Being radically romantic is not something half-baked or beige, it is a slippery, bloody, vital mess of love, brought into sharp relief by Fever Ray’s explosive vocal affectations and the trippiness of their musical explorations.
Looking for a Ghost explores looking for not the kind of love that everyone wants, but the kind of love Fever Ray wants – that vampiric razor blade smile love, that kooky left of center gorgeousness with weird pet names kinda devotion. A radical romantic notion is not the easiest thing to find ‘in the midst of life’. Fever Ray is brave enough to keep on searching, and the searching sounds so free and so wild that it makes the world seem full of possibility after all. The distorted voices, the organic drum beat, the joy of cannibalistic lust merges into a breathy desire in one of the stand out tracks of an album that no weak spots at all.
Carbon Dioxide is the definition of joy. The lyrics are topsy turvy like so much is in Fever Ray’s seductive upside-down world. Fever Ray is not looking for oxygen like everyone else, but instead wants to breathe in what their lover excretes: pure carbon dioxide. The scavenger of When I Grow Up is living on the ‘hocus pocus’ and ‘hyperfocus’, thriving on what kills lesser and more conventional creatures. The joyful whoops, the falsetto youthful sound in the vocals, running through the song unfettered is happiness personified. The energy is infectious. These are not the usual cliches. Ritual magickal power fuels the heartbeat of the track. It makes me want some Mugwump love, that unique alien love, that freaky love. The joy of individuality and the kick of living and loving sounds better than it has any right to in the dark boring grey world that we inhabit.
North is the most conventional track on the album but is not any the worse for it. It is a pure trance ballad with an organic beat and ethereal fae vocals. It sounds like a sun dance, a moon dance, a ritual sun salute, a dark room chant. It is the sound of the universe expanding. It is a pure bubbling energy transfer contained within an icy nordic-infused ballad. It is the sound of contentment.
The next track, Tapping Fingers builds up the heat again in a song which explores left-of-center communication. Fever Ray peers into the possibility of an alternative intimate language. This is Something About What Happens When We Talk (Lucinda Williams) for the trance, disaffected generation X crowd. Words don’t work anymore. The paranoid claustrophobia of the track, closing in the walls around the listener both disturbs and embraces. Talking by tapping fingers in code, shutting out the straight dangerous world of people who do not ‘get it’ and threaten our alien way of living, our ‘Bat Country’ realm of existence, our gonzo tribe, is the heartbeat of self preservation, and it sounds more beautiful than has a right to. It demands its beauty and closes its fist around it. The words soothe and hypnotize. The surreal becomes super real, a real ultra-alive experience.
The album finishes in the pure attention grabbing soothing, drowning not waving but breathing in the water of Bottom of the Ocean. This is music for Atlanteans, a trance scat exploration of waves and depths. Sometimes all there is left to say is ‘ohhhhh, oooohhhhhhh oooooooohhhh!’ Minus the drums and the bass, the final track prepares us for lift off. This is music that demands magic mushrooms, DMT or some kinda candy-flipping decadence. The beauty and the power is undeniable as the final echo fades away and leaves us with the uncomfortable silence of our own thoughts.
Radical Romantics is not just a great album, it is an important work of artistic expression, and belongs up there in the lists of greatest albums that demand attention. Fever Ray dove into the collective consciousness of her tribe, of the freaks and the lost, the broken and the breaking, and surfaced with something stunning. Give Fever Ray a place in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame already and a Grammy. Laud them as they deserve. This is a vital album, and just the medicine needed in a world increasingly devoid of individuality, and in great need of the unusual and the defiantly different.