One question I ask myself a lot is “Why doesn’t more music sound like Fever Ray?” That’s pretty much the greatness of Swedish musician Karin Dreijer Andersson (known primarily for her music made with The Knife) and her 2009 solo debut in a nutshell: it’s an album that has its own sound and mood, that is completely unlike anything else.
The Knife hinted at the direction Fever Ray would go in as a solo album with their acclaimed 2006 album Silent Shout. On that album, they embraced a darker sound, but it was still largely electro/synth pop that was designed for the dance floor (even if it was in a really weird dance club). On Fever Ray, Dreijer scrubs away most of the pop pretense that Silent Shout had, creating an album of dark, claustrophobic sounds that sometimes feel like the soundtrack to my nightmares. Fever Ray is very creepy, even for the somewhat high standards of creepiness set by this list so far.
Words like dark and creepy may not sound like ringing endorsements for an album, but something about Fever Ray keeps bringing me back. I think it’s what I hinted at before: if I want this kind of music (which I frequently do for some reason), Fever Ray is pretty much my only choice. It not only sounds unique but it also evokes emotions that aren’t found anywhere else. It’s like a beautiful nightmare, with lovely moments instantly pushing themselves up against moments of dread.
The closest comparison I can think of for Fever Ray is Björk’s 1997 masterpiece Homogenic, which was also sometimes dark, with chilly instrumentation and an unorthodox creator bringing it all together. While Björk’s voice was the human element in Homogenic, Dreijer’s is processed and manipulated, and her strange lyrics and pronunciations give the album even more of an alien feel. On some tracks, like “Concrete Walls”, her voice is pitched so low that it barely sounds like her. On the foreboding opener “If I Had a Heart”, both Dreijer’s low voice and the lyrics (“if I had a heart I would love you”) sound unhuman.
Dreijer is a shapeshifter on Fever Ray, which makes sense for an artist who rarely shows her face in public, even at concerts. But it’s also a more personal work than anything she did with The Knife, and her humanity does shine through on most songs, in an odd way. On songs like “Seven” and “When I Grow Up” there is a sense of childhood nostalgia. The music is forward-looking and modern, but most of the lyrics seem to be about looking back and remembering. Fever Ray creates the common duality of humanity and technology, and does it in a way that is mysterious and intriguing, much like the artist who made it.
Dreijer constructed the album on Garageband, and as a result it has that modern feel where every note is exactly where it’s supposed to be. That can sometimes be a drag, but Fever Ray is so immaculately constructed and individual that it never sounds tedious or limp. And while the album obviously makes heavy use of technology, it is also about being human. It reminds me of PJ Harvey’s White Chalk (#8 on this list), both in how individual it is and how it seems to be largely about loneliness and isolation. Both the albums are also self-contained, to a point where they can sometimes be seen as inaccessible to others.
So, to get back to my initial question, it’s easy to see why nothing else sounds like Fever Ray. Dreijer is one of the most strange and original talents of the decade, and the universe she creates on this album seems to exist only in her imagination. Even if someone were to replicate all the craft she puts into Fever Ray, they would be hard-pressed to match the sense of wonder and idiosyncratic personality that Dreijer provides. One of my big gripes about this decade was that music seemed to become more bland and impersonal, but Fever Ray proves that artists are still making personal, unique albums — you just might have to look a bit harder for them.