The Knife Shaking The Habitual(Rabid) Buy it from Insound
As is customary for any news item, review or think-piece on the latest album by The Knife, the extent of the anticipation for Shaking the Habitual must be mentioned. It has, lest you need reminding, been a long seven years since the siblings, Olof Dreijer and Karin Dreijer Andersson, staked their claim on the electro-pop landscape with Silent Shout, and accordingly every announcement related to this new release – from the cryptic teaser art, to the balls-in-your-face (almost quite literally) aggressiveness of the promo videos, and even the announcement of tour dates - has seen some kind of minor internet meltdown.
Except, it hasn’t been seven years since their last album; only back in 2010 they presented us with the soundtrack to their Darwinian opera, Tomorrow, in a Year, yet no-one seems to be mentioning it. Perhaps it’s because the instantly recognisable vocals that were what drew many to The Knife in the first place were only offered in short supply, or that the work was a collaboration with outside artists from the worlds of opera, pop, electronica and musical theatre, making it a less pure hit? Most likely though, it’s because a two-disc odyssey of atonality really wasn’t to the taste of much of their new-found audience.
So, being the cheeky scamps that they are, the Dreijers have decided that the best way forward for a comeback was to record another collection of epically lengthy, serious (in a playful kind of way), avant-garde pop, and deliver it in a spectacularly ugly package. In other words, Shaking the Habitual’s closest sibling (by far) amongst The Knife back catalogue is that opera, as perhaps most immediately obvious in the monumental drums and backing vocals of the melodramatic filth that is Wrap Your Arms Around Me, or Karin’s voice taking on a distinctly diva-esque turn in A Cherry on Top (that it turns out to be the most mundane part of the track’s mix of childlike sentiments with doom-metal tropes and forays into Asian-inspired tunings perhaps demonstrates just how bewildering it is). Similarly, the whip-smart choice of collaborators remains, as Stay out Here, a co-write with visual artist and MEN-svengali Emily Roysdon, finally offers Light Asylum’s Shannon Funchess a suitable vehicle to let out that blast of a voice. Even the outright difficult noise gets a fairly lengthy look-in in the form of the penultimate ten minutes of parping and grinding that is Fracking Fluid Injection - pretty much just a more grating rewrite of the digital simulacra of birdsong Letter to Henslow (and its inclusion here is already enough to knock one point off this review’s rating; precisely no-one, even those of us who loved Tomorrow, in a Year, asked for another one of those).
And yet, with all that being said, it’s not like Shaking the Habitual feels in any way like a stale retread, (or not for the most part at least – when presented with a ninety-six minute long record, there’s bound to be a bit of recycling to be found somewhere). Where that earlier work was partially created during a trip up the Amazon, reflected in both a fair amount of field recordings of wildlife and a general sense of vast, untouched space making their way onto the record, this one was birthed in the considerably more urban (if not exactly urbane) environments of the nightclubs and gender studies seminars of Olof’s adopted Berlin, resulting in a much more wild, tricky sort of beast.
Maybe the Dreijer’s have a point in such public contrariness? After all, even coming after two previous albums of gloriously bonkers electro-pop, Silent Shout wasn’t the instant success story that we’re lead to believe; more of a slow-burn from cult curiosity to all-conquering critical darling. Maybe they’re very much in the right with this hour and a half head-scratcher of a record and we as an audience will just need a bit of time to catch up with them?
It certainly seems like an entertaining novelty to be provided with a record with a genuine ethos to be decoded, at least. Somehow, despite the rise of internet culture supposedly turning us into wise, informed and generally right-on consumers, we’ve made a wrong turn somewhere along the way, and have found ourselves at a place where irony and semantics are more important than rational discussion; where articles can be published that somehow manage to keep a straight-face while claiming that Vice magazine is making an important contribution to modern journalism. Given such a toxic environment, it’s perhaps not a surprise that rock n roll - that archetypal ideal of rebellion and self-expression – is looking fairly sick in itself. If you manage to get past the decidedly bloated husks of baby-boomer heroes who just won’t go away, practically any attempt to find a bright young hope merely turns up a bunch of identikit, well-connected, insular, straight (in every sense of the word) guys who have precisely anything to say, and (here’s the kicker) are entirely unashamed about this. Yes, perhaps ‘twas ever thus, but what’s worrying is that no-one seems to care anymore; the term ‘revolutionary’ is now more likely to be wheeled out in discussions of funding models than actual content.
So, straight off the bat, the idea of ‘Shaking the habitual’ seems quite appealing in itself, what with the project’s attached kinky feminist porn music videos and threats to challenge how we view the live show experience, there’s more ambition here than in the entire output of this year’s hotly tipped new artists put together. But then, The Knife have never been the most direct of acts, and seem even more slippery than ever now, so can they pull off a genuine, thoughtful, artistic exploration? Or are they just attempting a bit of well-sustained trolling?
Shaking the Habitual’s argument, to an extent, stands strongest not so much on its own merits, but rather in its evoking fond memories of the anything is possible spirit of the 90s independent scene. For all the laddish excessiveness/generation X depressiveness that marked the majority of the decade’s musical output, there was a healthy underclass (which occasionally found patronage from the mainstream) of Riot Grrrl and Queercore artists, who believed that ideals and fury were far more important than something so patriarchal as actually learning how to play their instruments or write songs, and that’s a sense that The Knife are intent to recreate with their electronic howls and shrieks, and their quoting of gender theorists (which, given the general unfashionableness of the movement, seems both incredibly necessary and charmingly quaint).
And, on the plus side, the Dreijers have actually mastered their instruments of choice too: Karin’s oft-imitated, never-bettered, Banshee wail is very firmly back, but there’s also the uncharacteristically clean, impressively elastic nature of her railing against indifference in the wrenching Raging Lung; and the polyrhythmic programming that forms the backbone of pretty much every track is frequently stunningly divergent. Full of Fire might’ve seemed like an odd choice of a lead single at first, but its propulsive, rubber-duck molesting ways has, on repeated listens, proved itself to be something of a masterclass in addictive, even almost radio-friendly fury and these qualities frequently occur elsewhere too (even down to the squeaky toy abuse), as in the tribal disco of Without You My Life Would be Boring, or even a deeper-cut like Networking, where, if you tune out for even a couple of seconds – and, as it’s a seven minute long instrumental (with a few grunted interjections from Karin), it’s a given that you will at some point – coming back into focus can be a rather disorientating experience, as the entire background pattern has shifted imperceptibly yet totally in that time.
As for the sloganeering lyrics themselves? They do err, unsurprisingly, on the cryptic side, but sometimes they manage to hit on an idea that sticks, or even genuinely amuses; Full of Fire’s chant “Liberals giving me a nerve itch” might be a criticism of a specifically Swedish problem (as Karin cameoing as part of a pleasantly hypocritical bourgeois family in the video suggests), but it also wittily encapsulates that feeling of resigned disgust on stumbling across yet another game of intellectual bleeding-heart one-up(wo)manship that, like a virus, has spread to render pretty much all below-the-line discussion on The Guardian website entirely pointless.
While we’re on the subject, that video appearance also raises an interesting point about the legitimacy of the Dreijers’ position to take such a stand, as, with their nearing two decades as part of the Swedish music industry, surely their elder-statespeople status marks them out as being the comfortable middle class professionals they’re railing against (even if they have something of a history of fairly-visible gender bending in the form of their trademark pitch-shifted vocals, or the promotional images and videos that play with the concept of drag)? But, as the lyrics to that track indicate (as well as the duo’s recent work in children’s music education), Shaking the Habitual is not really about them, instead it’s a work about context, a questioning as to who is telling the stories that we digest.
Harder to shake off is the notion that there’s also a fair amount of junk here that seems difficult to dismiss no matter how closely you look for an artistic justification. The already infamous twenty minute centrepiece Old Dreams Waiting to be Realised it turns out isn’t so much ambient as non-existent (as most of its first ten minutes will be lost under the whirr of hard-drive fans or turntable motors it could be said to be genuinely unlistenable), while the Atwood-referencing twin miniatures of Oryx and Crake are also not much of anything. On top of that their sequencing seems deeply strange, as the intended impact of these ambient interruptions is diminished thanks to them being grouped arbitrarily close together (on the plus side, it makes them so much easier to skip - in particular expect side C on most vinyl copies to remain remarkably pristine).
Despite such clear flaws though, enthusiastically raving about the album, even when taking into account that a third of it (including those aforementioned ten minutes of Fracking… ) is borderline irritating, feels entirely justified, rather than an exercise in willful perversion, thanks to the quality of everything else on offer. It could even be said that there’s still a definite sense of essentialness to those perceived missteps, as perhaps Shaking the Habitual needs so much wasted space, objectively speaking, to work its magic; with the full run-time effectively inducing a form of Stockholm Syndrome in which The Knife’s both alien-like and alienated view of the world seems to make perfect sense.
As to the big question of whether it’s better or worse than Silent Shout? Honestly, who gives a shit. (If we really must discuss it then on the one-hand, no, there’s nothing quite so transcendentally bleak as that album’s title track, or Marble House, but on the other hand, it doesn’t suffer from as much of a second-half slump either). This isn’t a record to be ranked and filed away, instead it’s all about now; a call to arms that might make the listener livid, but, more importantly, knows that any movement run purely on bile will exhaust itself before getting anywhere and so remembers to be a hell of a lot of fun with it, a combination that you could probably expect from a work that manages to find space to quote and reappropriate the likes of Michel Foucault, Jeanette Winterson and Salt ‘n’ Pepa.
Of course, no-one genuinely expects something so monstrously obtuse to make much of a difference at all, but at least The Knife are still daring to believe that it could, and there is every chance that Shaking the Habitual could be at the cutting edge of a resurgent wave of socially-conscious electro-pop (based on her recent singles, the forthcoming album by the duo’s former collaborator Planningtorock looks set to deliver a healthy amount of radical, feminist rage). At the very least, thanks to their bold, holistic approach, and their subscribing to the philosophy that ‘ridicule is nothing to be scared of’, they’ve more than succeeded in bringing some colour back to pop music. Granted, the colours they’ve decided to go with are a puke-inducing splash of fuchsia and lime, but they’re very much welcome all the same.