Album Review: girl in red – I’M DOING IT AGAIN BABY!

[Columbia; 2024]

Marie Ulven is doing better. The Norwegian musician (who performs under the moniker girl in red) says exactly so on the opening track to her sophomore album I’M DOING IT AGAIN BABY! Over soft dampened piano notes akin to a music box playing over a childhood memory in your head, Ulven reassures us. “I’m back, I’m better than ever,” she details, documenting the small victories as she finds the light in the world again. For an artist who has made a name on documenting anxiety, worry, and forlorn love, hearing her speak in repeated positive affirmations (“hey, I took a shower today”) is comforting but oddly jarring for a brief moment. “I’m Back” is like a friend reappearing after months hidden away, peering and peeking around a door left ajar. 

On Ulven’s 2021 debut if i could make it go quiet she mostly nestled into her lo-fi bedroom pop/rock established style, reckoning with newfound fame and queer love as she broadened her sonic palette with co-producer Matias Téllez (and Finneas on the album’s opening track). On I’M DOING IT AGAIN BABY! she’s making the music she wants to (again with Téllez as co-producer), acting on whims, having fun in the studio, and trying to step out further into new places. She still wants to be upfront and honest about her experiences of the world, but she also wants to dip her fingers in other pies. 

Look no further than the second track for evidence of this, the album jackknifing from a gentle reawakening to garish, kick-the-door-in bravado. “DOING IT AGAIN BABY” is an ode to the feeling of being indestructible, finding a newfound vigour for life. The lyrics go overboard (“Having all this swagger was never a choice”) and while it’s fun and somewhat tawdry, it’s most memorable feature is the repeated titular refrain, evoking late 90s psychedelic dance music and repeating like a record stuck in a loop or a club track building up to a drop. Ulven very much wants to have her cake and eat it on the album, being multiple things at once (strutting rockstar, epic songstress, pop-punk queen, a Warhol Factory-residing artist in the 60s) but also her usual self she has spent years garnering fans with. 

The jumping between personas works for all intents and purposes, but the execution leaves something to be desired. “Pick Me” has all the ingredients for an epic piano ballad, full of rippling notes across the keyboard, but it gets muddied by additional production when a starker and barer outfit would suit it better (as well as letting the emotional paranoia of worrying over a good thing ending hit deeper). Elsewhere the bookending looping whir of machinery on final track “★★★★★” is woefully thrown away all too quickly while “You Need Me Now?” sticks in the memory not for its Sabrina Carpenter guest spot, but instead for the awkward and unnecessary intro Ulven gives her. 

Ulven herself is also the trouble here. She deals in relatable platitudes but doesn’t mine deep or find original spins on familiar anxieties that can distinguish her from hundreds of other artists in the same genre. “Ugly Side” might be enjoyable with it’s gloopy late 2000s pop synths, but using Jekyll and Hyde as a simile to emotional ups and downs feels like a clunky description of bi-polar symptoms (the needless spoken word outro does the track no favours either). “You Need Me Now?” is much the same, resting on a tired metaphor of a pendulum for someone going hot and cold on them. “★★★★★” might offer a self-referential barb (“I make magnificent trash”) but it goes no further than that. Granted I’M DOING IT AGAIN BABY! might be something of a playground for Ulven, but this shouldn’t be an excuse for surface level self-reflection. 

Things do work well here and there though: the honesty of opening track “I’m Back” is endearing; the way “A Night To Remember” builds from sweet piano to a pulsating full palette, capturing that feeling of coming to your senses during an euphoric moment of new love; and the cinematic sweep of strings on “Phantom Pain” offer a nod to Ulven’s desire to dabble in soundtrack work while also pairing suitably against the feeling of falling in love too quickly. The album’s brevity – a refreshing 28 minutes! – works in its favour too, but does leave you wanting for more. The album will satiate fans, but equally it doesn’t have moments with the same kind of infectious energy as if I could make it go quiet. (Not for a lack of trying; multiple tracks here trying to capture the rush of “You Stupid Bitch” but pale in comparison.)

The moments to latch onto across I’M DOING IT AGAIN BABY are the sonic bursts of interesting noise – the crashing glass punctuating the pre-chorus on “Too Much”, the Matt Bellamy-esque flurry of “let me love you”s on “Phantom Pain”, which is a genuinely exciting moment where the tempo increases to bursting as Ulven’s voice distorts and warps – but also the clumsy missteps. Though Ulven sounds in a better place, she’s still not free from the worry and anxiety that also comes with elation and joy. It colours her music as much as the kitschy stuff does here. Having your cake and eating it can be a messy affair, but Ulven doesn’t sound like one to shy away from a food fight – even if it is with herself.