Last month I had the audacity to suggest I wasn’t completely sold on the fact that the new Animal Collective album, Merriweather Post Pavilion, was the best record I had heard the week it was released. Many scoffed; some even questioned the notion of whether a rival could possibly exist -- let alone be released around the same time. But for me, it was a true statement. I can only claim to be honest when I tell you my opinions and my biases, and the lulling beauty of Fever Ray’s self-titled debut was one of the factors I kept in mind while writing that editorial.
Fever Ray, of course, is the alter ego of Karin Dreijer Andersson, one half of the Swedish super-sibling duo The Knife. Along with her brother Olof Dreijer, Karin has created music with a defining duality. Present has always been the dance stuff The Knife became recognized for, but it only served to mask a darker, haunting foundation. Now working solo, we find that Fever Ray is that haunting foundation.
Soft-spoken through a rather heavy, yet charming Swedish accent, Karin exudes few moments of emotion. It would be easy to dismiss her demeanor as non-chalant, but the romanticism lies in keeping her mysterious. When pressed about her apparent obsession with the morose, she calmly, almost lazily replies, “I don’t know what makes you interested in a certain thing. What’s the reason for it? I don’t know.” But as Daniel Dumile changes personas when donning the mask, so does Andersson, and what was first written off is quickly reassessed as Fever Ray. “I’m not good at making very happy tracks about nonsense. It’s quite normal to do songs about love, but there is no such song on my album.”
The irony here is that Andersson is the happy mother of two children and by no means a dark or haunting individual. She is a woman who Skypes with her brother (Olaf now lives in Berlin) and talks freely about her obsession with Miami Vice. In one of the rare instances of emotion, Andersson becomes animated when discussing the hit 80s television show. “I really like watching old Miami Vice,” she confirms as I await some deep musically inspired reason. “It looks so good when it’s warm dark nights and they just go out driving their boats and everything. It looks really nice,” Karin reaffirms with a bit of a chuckle.
When I asked her why she doesn’t move to a warmer climate, Karin cites the difficulties of moving with small children, a very motherly response. But aside from her homeland’s current climate -- more specifically, the near round-the-clock darkness they are currently experiencing -- I find very little insight into the demeanor of Fever Ray. Andersson’s is easy to spot; she is the woman who gladly, yet with a hint of exasperation and shyness, is answering my questions thoughtfully and politely. But what drives this beautifully voiced, ex-indie pop singer to contort her vocals to sound something akin to the musical version of a Joel-Peter Witkin photo?
To be fair, Fever Ray the album is not filled completely with dark landscapes, but they do inhabit most of it. Songs like “Seven” and “I’m Not Done” rely heavily on Andersson’s natural voice and are sung in an almost playful manner -- even bringing some of those South Floridian influences into play. But they are definitely the exception and not the rule, as carefully plodding songs like “Dry And Dusty” and the beautiful lead single “If I Had A Heart” carry the album, leaving it veiled in an eerie cloak. Ironically, one of the lyrical passages in “If I Had A Heart“ reads “If I had a voice, I could sing.” Maybe it’s Andersson’s own apprehensions that have led her to camouflage her voice?
Fever Ray - "If I Had A Heart"
“I think its very interesting when you can remove yourself from the music, even if you are the one creating it. That’s the thing with music, it allows you the possibilities to erase yourself for certain moments.”
And with that statement, we begin to see the cracks in the facade that is not only Fever Ray, but also The Knife. This is not about Andersson, it is about transforming herself to become someone else. As though she is an actress and her music is the accompaniment to her stage persona, almost belying her real self. To a certain degree, that holds true for most musicians, but it seems so much more prevalent in Andersson’s case. “I already know what my own voice sounds like,” she continues, “so I think it’s much more interesting to treat it as an instrument and treat it the same way I treat other instruments. But with the vocals I cannot only change the pitch, but the gender. It’s a very fun to do things like when Olof and I change rolls and see what happens, and if you can tell if it’s me or if Olof is doing something.”
[The Knife masked]
It’s very telling that she mentions the role of gender-play in her songs as that could be a fitting analogy for The Knife. They literally wear masks when performing and at times large coats to blanket most of their frames, both hiding their actual identity but also their genders and roles within the band. But with Fever Ray, there is no escaping her identity. No one is going to question if it is Olaf singing the dark passages. Andersson has no escape from being exposed, so instead of masking her face or body, she masks her identity.
[The Knife unmasked]
Also telling is the few contemporary references she points to. Aside from Miami Vice, she lists David Lynch and Fugazi as primary influences, and as though trying to win the hearts of every American male over the age of 30, she implicates Mike Patton as well. “I think Mike Patton has been doing very interesting stuff and this Anonymous album he did with Tomahawk -- with the Indian inspired music -- we listened to it a lot at home last Summer when I was finalizing my album, so I think it had a good impact on it.”
An anonymous record inspired by native beats could easily be used as a fitting summary for the Fever Ray record. And as for the David Lynch nod, one need look no further than the equally evocative video for “If I Had A Heart”.
Recorded during a recent break from The Knife -- “Because Olaf and I had been working for seven years [together] and we thought it would be good to have some time to try ideas that we maybe couldn’t do together” – Fever Ray might be another chapter for Karin Dreijer Andersson, but for many fans, it’s another piece to the puzzle. With only an operatic soundtrack to the Danish production of Tomorrow, In A Year (an ode to the 150th anniversary of Charles Darwin's The Origin Of Species) on the horizon, there is nothing further planned for The Knife as of yet. “It [the opera score] will be a Knife record, but I don’t know if it’s formal,” Andersson explains, “It will premiere in September, so it should be released sometime around that. After the Opera is done, then we can start talking about doing another Knife album.”
And with brother Olaf doing field recordings in the Amazon, this leaves Andersson -- and Fever Ray -- as vulnerable as she might ever be. For both the listener and the artist it might prove to be a rather complicated predicament. How much do we know? How much do we want to know? When I speak to friends and colleagues about The Knife, many are quick to point out the “weird” parts they “just don’t get.” That, in my opinion, is the allure of a band like The Knife. And if they had weird parts, then Fever Ray is the sum of those parts. Some of it we can explore, but most of it is better left untouched.
[Fever Ray album cover]
One of the reasons iconic rock bands become so identifiable is because they embody at least one easily defined characteristic -- usually the lead singer -- which makes them relatable. Few topics have yet to be over-discussed when talking about Animal Collective, but one that is commonly overlooked is the removal of their masks and how it (whether intentional or not) has directly coincided with their rise in popularity. Not that seeing their faces has done anything to affect their music, but it has affected the way we perceive them. Revealing one layer of the mystery is like a magician revealing certain aspects of his routine. Fever Ray has proven to be the opposite of this. The name is as much an alter ego as it is an amorphous set of egos, none easier to define then the next. This in turn makes the listener uncomfortable, awaiting answers that never come and creating suspense like only the best magicians can. And therein lies the real beauty of Fever Ray: The mystery of Karin Dreijer Andersson.