Album Review: The Knife, “Shaking The Habitual”
by Samuel Tolzmann on April 4, 2013
Posted in: Album Review, Eclectic, Electronic, Music, Other
Artist: The Knife
Album: Shaking The Habitual
Released: 9 April, 2013
Genre: Electronic, Experimental
RIYL: queer theory, radical anticapitalisms, contemporary art, Fever Ray, Bjork, Demdike Stare, M.I.A. (circa /\/\/\Y/\), Raime, Swans, tUnE-yArDs, Xiu Xiu
Key tracks: “Full Of Fire,” “Raging Lung”
What we talk about when we talk about the Knife: well, usually not Tomorrow, In A Year. The Knife’s 2010 experimental opera about the life and thought of Charles Darwin, written and recorded in collaboration with fellow Scandinavian acts Planningtorock and Mt. Sims, received the condescending curio treatment from critics and total indifference from the majority of the band’s own audience. Filled with ambient noises, birds chirping, Southeast Asian instrumentation, and, yes, operatic vocals from a full cast of performers, it wasn’t exactly the follow-up that anyone expected from the Knife – nor, more importantly, was it the follow-up most people wanted. So it was frequently ousted altogether from the conversation, while Fever Ray, the solo work of 50% of the Knife (Karin Dreijer Andersson, who comprises the duo with her brother Olof Dreijer), was welcomed into it with open arms from most relevant critical and popular corners. The line from the Knife’s 2006 LP Silent Shout – the still-amazing, still-terrifying masterpiece to which we owe much of mid-decade British dubstep, the ill-fated 2010 Last.fm tag “witch house,” and a whole generation of hipsters bringing back gothic style with a vengeance – to Fever Ray is fairly clear, with the later record manifesting all its predecessor’s theatricality and malevolence on a mellower and often pointedly domestic scale: it trailed after Silent Shout so effortlessly because it was the most logical possible “solo project” development of that sound for Andersson. But in the end, it’s exactly that: a tangent.
Turns out, you see, that Tomorrow, In A Year was the place to look for the Knife’s artistic ambitions all along. It’s hard to call it a one-off eccentric moment now. It was an audacious record, unapologetically weird, and aggressively challenging; the Dreijers bravely followed their interests rather than their wallets, working with Darwin, opera, and ambience rather than taking Andersson’s trademark mutated vocals back to the infernal dancefloor where Silent Shout had been conceived. The Knife have always been about theatricality in the sense of dressing up and dealing with the world around them, and it’s a rare track from the duo that scans as directly personal; only Andersson’s solo output explores her own psyche on straightforward terms. Tomorrow pushed that impulse further than ever, and now fifth LP Shaking The Habitual finds the Knife touching on its most extreme variations. This work has more moments than Tomorrow that might get you on a dancefloor, but it tempers these by simultaneously deconstructing them and burying them inside an album that wields its overall lack of accessibility like a weapon. It has several minutes of droning white noise, it has a pair of abrasive interstitials named after Margaret Atwood characters, it relies on rhythms generated by uncommon sources (industrial machinery, Balinese gamelan…); it’s short on hooks and melody, on recognizable structure, on easily memorized lyrics. Hell, it’s even short on beauty. This is the Knife with a whole new set of reference points in tow: instead of Christian Vogel, Aphex Twin, Kid A, Berlin minimalist techno, and clubby Eurohouse, this new incarnation of the duo will alternately put listeners in mind of the soulless, evil ambient dubscapes of British acts like Demdike Stare and Raime, the political polemics and pop-noise jostling of M.I.A.’s notorious flop /\/\/\Y/\, and the genderqueered emo-cum-electroclash performance art of mid-2000s Xiu Xiu. Occasionally, something resembling “pop” rears its head on Shaking The Habitual, but like a more daring version of Silent Shout, it’s a hideous, cracked reflection of pop. The moments that are likely to draw listeners in are ultimately subject to ruthless, rigorously intellectual interrogation and even condemnation.
Why? The Knife released a lengthy, grad-school-esque political manifesto during the release blitz for Shaking The Habitual; made the rounds of the music industry press with barbed political comments and cryptic phrases; decorated their website and album packaging with attention-grabbingly garish colors and the kind of vaguely outsider-ish drawings we expect from alternative comics with subversive images and/or sociopolitical agendas; and put out a pair of aesthetically ungainly, deliberately uncool, pointedly feminist music videos to market their singles. But I don’t feel the need to spend the rest of this review talking about the touchstone queer theory and Marxist ideology upon which the LP is artistically founded – mainly because form, as every good artist knows, is content, and therefore listening to this album is the best way of engaging with its politics.
But perhaps more useful to those readers who haven’t yet taken the plunge into the bizarre, jarring, and unforgettable world of Shaking The Habitual is the observation that the particular stakes of this work – broad and fraught notions like sexuality, gender, race, class, capitalism, imperialist colonialism, environmental decline, subjectivity, and the hypocrisy of so-called progressive thought in the band’s home nation of Sweden and the developed world in general – have always been central to the Knife’s music, even when they were making stuff that might more smoothly land in the category of popular music. The video for “Pass This On” pitted drag spectacle against staid conservative masculinities; 2006’s “One Hit” asked tough questions about the lines between art and pornography, ordinary and obscene; “From Off To On” and Andersson’s solo work under the Fever Ray moniker conveyed a deep-seated discontent with modern domestic life and its attendant inequalities. Even at moments that seem inoffensive, the siblings have often actually been taking traditional narratives and twisting them to the breaking point in order to expose the secret hardwiring of power, as on early track “Reindeer,” which finds Santa Claus abusing and exploiting his mammalian labor force. And then of course there’s Andersson’s well-known predilection for digitally torquing her vocals until they reach inhuman octaves in sick parody of conventional ideas of masculinity and femininity.
Shaking The Habitual is not different, then, in its subject matter from past Knife albums. But it does find them confronting the problematic issue of pop music’s basic entrenchment in the hegemonic structures they try to protest in pop music. Hypocrisy is the devil in political discourse, so of course accessibility was the first thing to go. The album’s most immediate moments – singles “A Tooth For An Eye” and “Full Of Fire,” very deliberately stacked at the top of the tracklist – are fearsome, writhing compositions that turn on the listeners enjoying them to pose unexpected and uncomfortable questions. “Let’s talk about gender, baby. / Let’s talk about you and me,” goes the outro to the latter, abruptly rewriting the famous refrain of the decidedly less politically-minded early-1990s hit “Let’s Talk About Sex.” That kind of sudden inversion is par for the course with the Knife in 2013; this album is about taking what’s comfortable and revealing the problems that underlie that comfort. It accomplishes this through texture and heterogeneity: there are so many instruments, so many stylistic modes feeding into these 90 minutes of music, that the very fact of the album’s overall cohesion under the umbrella term “The Knife” becomes a statement. “What a difference a little difference would make,” intones Andersson on the sexy slow-burner “Raging Lung,” directly quoting the Fugazi favorite “Blueprint” off of their classic 1990 LP Repeater. Guy Picciotto’s words become the Knife’s new aesthetic mantra: one of the more pop-oriented new songs, “Without You My Life Would Be Boring,” strays out of the Western house-music mindset many Knife fans are used to being in, folding in creepy baby noises and jazz flute as well, but always finds its way back to the familiar.
On the other hand, the droning 19-minute ambient epic “Old Dreams Waiting To Be Realized” is a master class in slow-building tension and field recording that many will be inclined to skip over, but it’s actually vital to the album as a whole, even its seeming polar opposite “Full Of Fire” – the track draws out through sound the anxiety and dread at the core of the album and forces us to endure it, unadulterated, for 19 increasingly devastating minutes. The rest of the album sounds different after you’ve survived “Old Dreams”; what seemed chaotic or antagonistically difficult before starts to make sense. The ugly and the beautiful are a package deal, as are the political and the personal; unlike last year’s very lengthy LP from Michael Gira’s always-upsetting Swans, The Seer, to which this one will likely be compared, the Knife don’t unleash a total onslaught of esoterica and viscera so much as declare the necessity of balancing the allegedly simple (by which they mean marketable) with the apparently complex (and commercially DOA). Listeners who put on Shaking The Habitual with an open mind, who are willing to concede the binary structure of appealing/disturbing, are the listeners who will ultimately earn the right to love this record for its pleasures and its seeming antagonism.
It’s not easy to do. Many are going to be let down by this; some of the more pretentious assholes among us will pretend to like it when they don’t really at all. But in a recent interview, Andersson discussed the group’s decision not to change its name to reflect its new sound by arguing that the vital message the Knife is trying to disseminate will circulate more widely using “The Knife” as its currency than it might otherwise. This is absolutely true, and few pop acts are in a better position to do so than this one. Its music has long been some of the oddest and most unsettling on the big-time indie scene, and therefore I find it hard to imagine a pop act with a fan base more prepared to delve into a dense, sophisticated, and fervently alive record like Shaking The Habitual. It’s a challenge to put out work like this, to be sure, and a risk; fittingly for a record attacking, on some level, global capitalism, it’s a guaranteed commercial flop. This album is very difficult to understand, so difficult that it will take many listens before anyone can really get their head around the specifics of what’s going on here, thematically speaking. I certainly don’t feel qualified to try and offer much insight. But I can tell you to listen to it; that just because it’s hard to do that at times doesn’t mean it’s not worthwhile; that while I can’t speak to its agenda with much sophistication, this record will agitate and maybe change you. Ignore the “A” grade I gave it, since the Knife would frown on such a problematically normalizing system of qualitative analysis anyway; only thing I know for sure is, the most important thing you can do with an album like Shaking The Habitual is sit down (okay, or dance around) with nothing to distract you and give it 90 minutes of your undivided and unjudgmental attention, at the very least. If it seems like the Knife’s fucking with you, that’s because they are. Relish it, because too few artists working at this level are brave enough to admit that fucking with you is, and should always be, the point. That’s what we should be talking about when we talk about the Knife.
The Knife, Shaking The Habitual: 1. A Tooth For An Eye 2. Full Of Fire 3. A Cherry On Top 4. Without You My Life Would Be Boring 5. Wrap Your Arms Around Me 6. Crake 7. Old Dreams Waiting To Be Realized 8. Raging Lung 9. Networking 10. Oryx 11. Stay Out Here 12. Fracking Fluid Injection 13. Ready To Lose