One of the reasons we connect so deeply with music is that we can hear ourselves in it, be it cosy and warm feelings about love or the darker shades that wrestle with depression, isolation, and the fear of death. It’s always satisfying (if not relieving) to hear someone go through a similar struggle, especially when they are tackling the topics that are more socially unacceptable to bring up in conversation. For many, Marie Ulven – aka girl in red – is this voice calling back to the listener.
Tangling with anxiety, self-doubt, love, and lust, the Norwegian singer/songwriter seems particularly well suited to be heard by a wider population now openly reckoning with darker commonalities, like obsessions of death and the damaging effects of social media. (One heralds the likes of Billie Eilish for being an icon in this regard.) One of the reasons girl in red connects with so many is no doubt because she’s a relatable young queer teenager working through their own shit in front of an audience. Through numerous singles and EPs over the past few years, we have been able to follow Ulven’s diaristic reckoning with young adult life, and for many it has felt like looking into a mirror.
In part arriving because the global pandemic brought her tour plans to a halt, girl in red’s debut album if i could make it go quiet comes to us after Ulven spent time at home alone revisiting old songs before creating demos that she would take to the studio to record with Matias Telléz. She took an eight-hour long car ride to get to the studio, and spent the journey listening to ways to improve on her songs and talking to herself to figure out how to get the best work she could down on record.
if i could make it go quiet certainly seems to succeed in Ulven’s aim, in that each moment of the 33 minutes is filled deliberately. The production values are flashier, grander, and louder than previous releases, and Ulven dives headfirst into new territory, beginning proceedings with the FINNEAS-produced “Serotonin”, which casts her in a different light – something she tries out multiple times across the album. “Serotonin” bristles with deep bass gulps, rapped verses, and precise drum machine clicks, all over a thorny and shiny guitar riff. It’s anthemic in a new and exciting way, managing to retain a fuzzy yet spacious and homely quality while also dishing out some of Ulven’s darker anxieties; “I’ve got intrusive thoughts / like cutting my hands off / like jumping in front of a bus.” She’s always been brutally honest, but here she feels particularly candid and exposed, which is all the starker in this new setting.
“Body And Mind” follows suits stylistically, with an equally anthemic chorus amidst a R&B/pop swagger and staccato keys, sounding like something that wouldn’t feel out of place in the hands of stars like Katy Perry, Lady Gaga, or Billie Eilish. Elsewhere “I’ll Call You Mine” is an open-top driving hit, poppier than what fans might be used to at first glance. Again, it’s new territory for Ulven, but the setting does feel that little bit artificial, though she thankfully drives herself into a memorable flurry of desire for reassurance in an otherwise peaceful moment at the song’s centre: “Show me that you really care.”
On the album’s final track, “it would feel like this”, Ulven answers the prompt of the album title with an undynamic and unexciting short instrumental piece that speaks to her desire to delve into soundtrack work. It feels more like a palette cleanser after an intense half hour rather than a meaningful and important piece that anyone will deliberately return to, but kudos has to be given for Ulven throwing something at the wall to see if it sticks. She’s not simply trying to retread the same path again, and actively challenges herself to go out with her comfort zone (even if it doesn’t completely work).
What makes Ulven so memorable though is her talent as a deft and introspective lyricist. She has an uncanny ability to turn statements of dour hurt and pain into meaningful (and immensely catchy) musical moments – a quality that makes if i could make it go quiet so notable. On “hornylovesickmess”, she weaves together thoughts on newly-found fame, touring fatigue, being unreliable to friends, and (unsurprisingly) horniness. Delivered with a smirk under the sadness, she sings “Down at Times Square in the rain / There’s a billboard with my face / It’s so weird how things have changed.” Come the final sweep of the track, everything slows to a reflective pause in the energy, like Ulven is watching scenery go by through a bus window.
“You Stupid Bitch” takes the rousing energy from previous hit “dead girl in the pool.” and amps it up tenfold, making for an instantly memorable titular sentiment that begs to be sung amidst a crowd. On “Rue”, she affirms to herself “Don’t want to make it worse / I’m gonna make it work” around a swirl of dark synths and guitar chords. The deliberation is there in each line she sings, and even when it sounds like a sentiment we’ve hear before (“Honey, I’m not doing so well”) or like Ulven is singing with the anger fresh on her face (“I’m not upset / I’m fucking pissed / I spelled it out / You’re illiterate”), the upped production values don’t tamper with that intimate personal feeling that only she can bring to her words.
The moments that seem like direct continuations of her back catalogue, which appear on the back half of the album, become all the more stellar. With its creaky plucked strings and gloomy piano, “midnight love” retains that feeling of having come out of Ulven’s own bedroom, and “Apartment 402” injects some of the hazy, listless, late-summer feel we heard on her chapter 1 EP back in 2018.
if i could make it go quiet does a pretty great job of playing to Ulven’s strengths while also branching out. Her newer territory might take a moment to adjust to, and may not always entirely suit her, but so long as she keeps singing about the experiences and feelings that are her own, she will remain captivating and exciting. After all, we need to hear our own voices out there in the world, and girl in red is thankfully that voice for so many.