In the wake of the success of the Knife’s third album, Silent Shout, Mute gives the synth-pop duo’s first two albums the American release they deserved five and three years ago. And what better opportunity for us to recap the group’s development, celebrate this strident confluence of off-beat humour, alienation and good old synth-pop.
As much as Silent Shout is cloaked in a cracked Gothic shadow, the Knife’s earlier work wears its various anatomies on a brightly shining sleeve. The latest, amid its creepy tales of cracked teeth, severed hands, and the fear of world’s end, asks of the listener “tell me / Will I make it home tonight?” And the answer’s uncertain. On Deep Cuts, and to a lesser extent The Knife, the Dreijer siblings Olof and Karin are more concerned with what happens once we’re already home—the sometimes unsavory thoughts and actions that are part of being human.
With the Knife, nothing’s really straightforward, and you can’t trace a neat line of development from The Knife to Deep Cuts to Silent Shout; each has their own successes, and their own limitations. True, these earlier albums lack some of the coherence of vision and sound that contribute to Silent Shout‘s success, but there are plenty of moments that foreshadow it. The pitch-black theme of outrunning a potential rapist, Silent Shout‘s “Na Na Na” is, perhaps, the prequel to The Knife‘s description of the act itself, on “Kino”; like the latter album’s veiled reference, “Kino” is evocative without being explicit—“It burned and I wonder why it burned”, all we need to know.
Deep Cuts, though, fearlessly delves into overt sexuality and jokey violence, which achieves the desired shock, but can give the album something close to a novelty. “Rock Classics” packs the sting into a barbed tail, coiled beneath slow, reggae-infused haunted house; “Hangin’ Out” and “The Cop”, though, are less complete thoughts, more snippets. The words still shock, but only on their next album did the group learn how to marry their sense of pop melody with a true feeling of dread.
What’s most effective about Deep Cuts is this idea, recurring throughout the Knife’s music, of dislocation and alienation. It’s manifested in the disconnect between the lyrics and the warm, bright instrumentation full of synths and steel drums. This electronica bears a strong relationship to Röyksopp’s wintry dance music, and approaches music with the same lush-painted experimentation as Kate Bush. A few ancillary instruments are added here and there, but the Knife rely on varying synth effects and those steel drums to colour their compositions, and mostly that’s all we need. Don’t need to look past “Heartbeats”, now a cliché but only on account of its electro-pop perfection, simultaneously bitter, stringent, sweet, anthemic, and insular.
The Knife is less developed, sure, but still charming in an icy, sexual, Scandinavian way. Calmer and more straightforward than either of the other albums, Röyksopp-style synths and Björk-esque, swooping vocals (with less obvious shrouding screech) give the album a sometimes predictable, sometimes thrilling build. You wouldn’t hear something like “Neon”‘s calm, long saxophone lines on Deep Cuts, much less Silent Shout. Both albums feature one line in common: “We raise our heads for the colour red.” Whether it seems a paean to the sun (“Parade”) or a blazing-eyed werewolf-style banger (“You Take My Breath Away”), the sentiment has a strange urgency. The Deep Cuts version is ten times more powerful: about the teenage delusion of love, but the music swoops with large, romantic gestures—a huge synth arpeggio, tinkling steel drums, and guest Jenny Wilson’s straighter vocal style. First blush, it’s a hit; some time later, the irony of the last line really hits home.
Ultimately, if the Knife had just released another record that sounded like Deep Cuts, even if an evolutionary improvement, the group would never have received the attention and adoration that made Silent Shout a critical success. Silent Shout is so successful because it trades in euphemism and reference; and then hits us hard with a line like: “When we come home we pull the curtains down/ Making sure the TV is on.” The Knife and Deep Cuts, though they don’t reach this level of coherence and technical proficiency of the third, are more than collectibles. They saw and beat with true, sometimes ugly, life.