There aren’t many artists who manage to become cultural signifiers before they release their first album. But on some corners of the Internet, asking “do you listen to girl in red?” has become synonymous with “are you a lesbian?” Since 2017, girl in red (indie project of Marie Ulven) has soundtracked the queer experience with a slew of indie rock tracks that are equally romantic and self-aware, enrapturing young queer listeners with her charisma.
Now armored with both name recognition and a loyal fanbase, girl in red’s debut album, if i could make it go quiet, is out tomorrow. Recorded during the pandemic in her hometown of Bergen, Norway, if i could make it go quiet is a brutally vulnerable collection of pop and rock songs that sees Ulven pushing sonic and lyrical boundaries.
Like the title suggests, if i could make it go quiet is an album about the elusiveness of peace in a life full of chaos. For Ulven, that chaos is primarily rooted in struggles with mental health and romantic relationships. She muses on melancholy, jealousy, anger, and depression and how even the most painful feelings catalyze rebirth and self-discovery.
Finneas opens the album as a guest producer on “Serotonin,” one of the strongest tracks on the album and the first single released ahead of the LP. An alt-pop banger complete with chanting, freestyle vocals and detailed lyrics about intrusive thoughts (like “jumping in front of a bus” or “cutting my hand off”), “Serotonin” is a full-bodied masterpiece about the uncomfortable reality of living with mental illness.
“Apartment 402” is “Serotonin’s” foil; while the latter captures her mental chaos, the former focuses on the hazy solitude of a depressive state. Like FKA Twigs’ “daybed,” it sees its narrator relying on external sensory details to communicate the intensity of her interior experience (“When the sunlight hits the dust/And I can’t get up/When the noise is way too much/I close the void and burn it off”). It also contains one of Ulven’s stronger lyrical musings on the precarious balance between hope and despair: “But there’s a crack in every wall/Is there a way out after all?/If I lose my grip and fall/Will I?”
“rue,” a previously released single that remains one of the best in the bunch, tells a story of how a friend found Ulven in a crisis state. After this experience, Ulven finds herself repeating, like a mantra, “I’ll make it work.” Though her lyrics are weaker on this track, Ulven sounds right at home on the moodier production and successfully captures her desperation for recovery after a traumatic experience.
Ulven isn’t only explicit in her descriptions of her experience with depression; she refuses to resort to nicecites when writing about sex. “Did You Come?” is an anthem of a jealous partner burning to know all the gory details of her ex-partner’s new life. “Tell the truth…wait never mind,” she sings, opting for blissful ignorance instead. “hornylovesickness” tells a tale as old as time: a touring musician is lonely and horny in the midst of achieving their dreams on the road. Surprisingly charming and memorable, “hornylovesickness” sees Ulven taking responsibility for her vices: “And I don’t wanna be the type of person who calls you up /Every time I need to get off/But I guess that’s who I’m turning into.”
“hornylovesickness” is also noteworthy in its production; it’s a lilting yet melancholy piano track reminiscent of Sara Bareilles or Lily Allen. Another sonic outlier is “Body And Mind,” an alt-rock song that recalls the production styles of Imagine Dragons or twenty one pilots. Though “hornylovesickness” is more successful than “Body and Mind,” neither indicates a promising new musical direction for girl in red. Earlier singles like “Midnight Love” and “Rue” have a muted grunginess that suits her best, and “.” is her most successful foray into a new sound: spacey, cinematic alt-rock.
Unfortunately, “Body and Mind” is also emblematic of a larger weak point of the album. While Ulven’s lyrical strength is in being shockingly explicit, she sometimes struggles to capture the gravity of her subject matter in other ways, resorting to filler lines instead. “Body and Mind” attempts to grapple with the intense discomfort of existing as a soul in a physical body. “It’s about you realizing you’re only a person, and the outer world can easily affect your body, even though you don’t feel like it’s affecting your mind,” she explains. “It’s that dissonance between your mind and who you are as a person… Sometimes it’s really hard to grasp that we’re actually just humans, even though we take that shit for granted every day.”
It’s a cumbersome experience to verbalize, and Ulven only seems to scratch the surface (“I’ve been in the deep end since I realized/There is a difference between body and mind/I’ve been at my lowest for the longest time/Knowing my existence is not one of a kind”). This lack of specificity and reliance on awkward, low-impact language is a common thread throughout the album and is ultimately its primary weakness.
Though she struggles to articulate some of the finer points of her experience, Ulven can effortlessly harness the lustful rage of a scorned woman in her lyrics. “You Stupid Bitch” is a delightfully punky (and queered) version of Taylor Swift’s “You Belong With Me,” and “Did You Come?” is, in spite of its explicitness, exhilarating. These two tracks are the most pleasant surprises on the album and will undoubtedly be the highlight of her live shows when she’s able to tour again (Ulven has said that “You Stupid Bitch” is the song she’s most excited to debut on stage).
But no song captures the fine line between recovery and relapse quite like “I’ll Call You Mine,” an excellent choice for the penultimate song on the tracklist. “Break me down/And I’ll call you mine/And I know I’ve been around,” Ulven sings to an anthemic backdrop. She connects the feeling of being vulnerable with someone new to a broader sense of personal rebirth, while still being anxious that she’ll crash and burn.
The final track “it would feel like this” answers the question that the album’s title poses. It’s an instrumental that Ulven intended to sound like a film score, a soundtrack to what radical inner peace might feel like. “‘It would feel like this’ is sort of where I’ve come to terms with myself, or with being a human: It’s this sense of relief, this quiet. I’m just imagining if, when you’re okay, and you know you’re going to be okay, that’s what it would sound and feel like,” she says. It’s a choice that not only flexes Ulven’s musical versatility but ties the album in a thematic bow.
The ultimate success of if i could make it go quiet is its ability to take risks while remaining centered on a successful theme: that achieving peace is dependent on one’s ability to embrace the inevitability of chaos. With naked honesty as her greatest weapon, Ulven soundtracks both her experience as a queer woman and someone who struggles with her mental health. By releasing this album into the world, she is giving her fans the ability to find catharsis in her music, the catharsis she deeply yearns for in every track. “I just feel like I emptied myself in this album,” she says. Luckily, if i could make it go quiet has the power to fill her listeners up.
if i could make it go quiet drops tomorrow.
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