Girl in Red: If I Could Make It Go Quiet review – calm before the storm

(World in Red/AWAL)
Marie Ulven’s debut album is a quietly confident declaration of intent that should resonate far beyond her fanbase

Youthful beginnings traditionally tend to be noisy. Over a series of standalone tracks and EPs, the Norwegian singer-songwriter Girl in Red has already produced a couple of albums’ worth of rallying anthems leavened by quiet introspection. She is typical of, but also transcends, the diaristic, self-produced bedroom pop that has become prevalent in recent years, thanks to the democratisation of the means of production that has put power in the hands of younger, more female artists.

Moshpit-ready and refreshingly direct, Marie Ulven’s songs about her sexuality (she likes girls) and mental health (up and down) have already become era-defining, to the point where “Do you listen to Girl in Red?” has become a discreet online query into someone’s orientation. In truth, Ulven’s Gen Z candour speaks to all comers, not just those who are LGBTQ+. Careening around, falling in love and out of it – this is universal, age-old song fodder, made new again by granular specifics and Ulven’s brio.

On her first album’s title, however, the 22-year-old has chosen to underline not her desire to rip the roof off venues, but an overarching craving for peace of mind. Girl in Red’s long-awaited full-length debut is certainly loud, with forays into stroppy pop-punk and busy stadium electronics. But volume and noise are not the same thing. And this album’s loudness and ambition seem, ultimately, to act in the service of some longed-for internal quietude.

If I Could Make It Go Quiet ends with a brief instrumental, It Would Feel Like This, in which a simple piano melody is shadowed by a string arrangement. “If I could make it go quiet,” Ulven is saying, “it would feel like this piano and these strings”, rather than, for instance, a song such as You Stupid Bitch, where her record reaches its peak bratty yang. Sharing a little of the carpe diem, cathartic pop DNA of Icona Pop and Charli XCX’s I Don’t Care, You Stupid Bitch finds Ulven venting her frustration at a female friend who makes bad choices and can’t see their relationship from Ulven’s perspective. “The only one for you is me!” she yells.

You can isolate two distinct aspects to Girl in Red’s bold, post-bedroom racket here, and how they might serve her ultimate peace of mind. The first is her uncompromising candour, the kind of over-sharing that comes naturally to Ulven’s cohort, plus a bit and then some. Take Hornylovesickmess, a breezy-sounding take on female lust, in which she self-flagellates about how her raging libido can make her use people.

Even sharper is the petulant Did You Come?, a peppy, goth-pop track in which Ulven confronts an errant lover: “Did you come, how many times?” she demands. “Tell the truth – wait, never mind.” The zingers pile up. “I spelled it out, you’re illiterate,” she seethes. “Never listen to a monologue told by a lying fraud.”

The second aspect is Girl in Red’s new production values: they are not small. Much of her early output had the homespun sheen of indie pop, a sort of punky, tra-la-la quality that also leaned hard into the mainstream. Ulven’s amateurishness has proved to be a phase rather than an aesthetic choice. On If I Could Make It Go Quiet, she co-produces for the backs of arenas, largely with the aid of Bergen-based Matias Tellez. There is nothing spindly about tracks such as Rue, which starts with folk-pop verses redolent of First Aid Kit, but builds into propulsive stadium pop. The helicopter flutters on Hornylovesickmess are just one little detail that prove Girl in Red has come on in leaps and bounds in her technical acumen.

Listen to Serotonin by Girl in Red

The album’s greatest clout round the ear, however, is Serotonin, where ultra-modern production meets Ulven’s most lashing internal weather. Here, she details the intrusive thoughts that plague her, the downsides of medication and how her mind “is such a liar”. If it sounds, in parts, a bit like an emo Billie Eilish track, then that’s because the elder Eilish, Finneas, assists. (Girl in Red has since released a moving a cappella version.)

Where this album falls down is in how much Ulven craves all that Eilish trademark audio drama, but can’t quite find a way to make it her own. A song such as Body and Mind has that old-timey, hyper-modern fusion that the Eilishes do very well. For all Ulven is singing about deeply personal matters, her multitracked vocal has more than a bit of Billie about it, down to how Ulven whisper-mutters the album’s title line.

Ultimately, it only makes sense for Girl in Red to grow, and to grow in the direction of the music industry’s current source of heat and light. The greatest progression here seems not to be from the ramshackle pop of Girl in Red’s GarageBand days to this sleek, arena-ready iteration, but in the assurance of the change. Where before there was a too-raw frailty to some of Ulven’s music, now she has hit a bold, gleeful stride in which diaristic splurge has become writing; and music, not merely a vector for venting, but a place in which to tame noise into sounds that benefit her.

Contributor

Kitty Empire

The GuardianTramp

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