One of the prevailing themes of The Knife’s unwieldy, unruly 2013 album Shaking The Habitual is right there in the title: breaking from norms and destroying expectations. Influenced by the writings of feminist and queer theory scholars, the Swedish sister-brother duo fixated on questioning the strict, pointless rules we use to shape society and our impressions of others. Musically, it was a huge step away from the clean, cold synth-pop sound that had garnered Silent Shout so much acclaim. In seeking to tear down boundaries between gender and sexuality and every one of us, the duo also tore down its process, turning to the more improvisational approach that resulted in Shaking’s wild 95-minute sonic odyssey. That’s what you get for expecting another Silent Shout.
It’s not quite the fussy cold shoulder to pop music that Shaking was, but Karin Dreijer has brought plenty of that record’s defiant spirit to Plunge, her second solo album as Fever Ray. This is far from the arctic dirges of her self-titled debut, where Dreijer’s pitch-shifted voice melted into songs like the eerie calls of some ancient, occult force. She is now alive, raw, and unmistakably human, and she revels in all the desires and tribulations this implies with a radical bluntness that, if Shaking’s subject matter is anything to go by, is meant to explode any old-fashioned societal norms for how women should love, live, and express themselves. And of course, she’s going to do it while completely defying any assumptions we may have about her music.
Plunge’s first and only pre-release single, “To The Moon And Back,” signaled that ambition with its most eyebrow-raising line. Sounding sweeter and more bubbly than anything Dreijer has ever recorded, it unfolds like a typical love-song narrative, until things start to get hot and heavy and she says to her partner, “I want to run my fingers up your pussy.” In the context of the song, it’s presented as plainly as it should be—just another lustful ache, something someone might say to their partner in the heat of the moment. But there’s a subversive power to its directness in light of those old-fashioned cultural and pop-music norms Shaking railed against. With that line, Dreijer is taking a sledgehammer to any heteronormative illusions the listener might have dreamed up over the previous three minutes of talk about kissing and taking and making things happen.
And if hearing the chirping, sugary pop of “To The Moon And Back” before the rest of Plunge somehow gave us the notion that Dreijer was turning toward a sound that’s easier to pin down and digest, then the rest of her long-awaited follow-up is doing the same expectation-shattering work as that lyric. Opener “Wanna Sip” introduces us to her simmering anger with a metallic, clanging alarm and eventually boils over into an apocalyptic hail of missile-like synths, with gobs of machine-gun percussion to match. Elsewhere, “IDK About You” draws listeners in with a club-ready beat before mutating into its nervous, sinewy self. Even then it isn’t done surprising, as the beat works its way back in and grows into a whooping, hyperactive euphoria. Right after that, Dreijer launches into “This Country,” a nightmarish combination of industrial beats and robot baby-talk telling us that, in this country that makes it hard to fuck, “every time we fuck we win.” At these extremes, Plunge can turn into a repellent record, but it comes off as playfully, purposefully done, like Dreijer is mischievously pushing listeners’ buttons to challenge just about everything they know—of the world, of her music.
But beyond its aggressive peaks, there is also true beauty here, and even nuggets of stark synth-pop that call back to her past work. The album closes with the one-two punch of “An Itch,” which brims with the same pulsing energy as Silent Shout, and “Mama’s Hand,” a gentle, muted return to the walls of percussion employed on several old Fever Ray tracks, like “Triangle Walks.” And then there’s “Red Trails,” a string-forward stunner that channels the same haunting, primeval power as Fever Ray classic “If I Had A Heart” and culminates in a jubilant violin solo. It’s such a fragile, unabashedly pretty song that it ends up standing apart from Plunge’s manic, challenging track list, yet even it carries a hint of the violent defiance and liberation that runs through the rest, as Dreijer sings about painting with blood and setting snow on fire. That’s ultimately where the thrill of this album lies; in its ability to change on a dime, to provoke—intermittently and from one listen to the next—confusion, shock, laughter, enlightenment, and ultimately admiration.