The Swedish duo's follow-up to one of synth-pop's greatest achievements is -- wait for it -- an electro-opera about Darwin.
It was a funny coincidence that during my first… slog, really, through Tomorrow, In a Year, I came across a note from the Knife’s Olof Dreijer, apologizing to the attendees of a Halloween party in Bogotá for “false advertising.” He and Tomorrow collaborator Mt. Sims were asked to play a two-hour DJ set to promote the new record, an opera based on the writings and experiences of Charles Darwin. The two dressed up as Charles and Emma Darwin for the event, and apparently the music they played was so “horrible” that their promo company stopped them after 40 minutes. “Sorry,” Olof writes with his best poker face to the partygoers who were given wrong information (like, that the music wouldn’t be horrible), and offers them a refund by clicking a link. It’s probably a blank page, and it may or may not contain a virus.
Ask Mogwai, the Pharcyde, and My Bloody Valentine: Expectations are a mother, and the roar of your fans clamoring for a sound they like can be deafening, even if you’re the Knife and artistic freedom trumps popularity any day of the week. Whether those fans will follow the band beyond Tomorrow, In a Year is the $64,000 question, but faced with such a hard swerve left, the party people are forced to acknowledge the Swedish brother-sister duo’s affinity for the macabre, the weirdly theatrical, and the deeply avant-garde. Underlying this is the desire to become someone or something else -- pop stars, birds of prey, opera composers, the Darwins, and so forth. The Danish experimental theatre troupe Hotel Pro Forma recognized this protean fantasy in the Knife, and hired them to compose the music for their latest opus: Tomorrow, In a Year: A Darwin Electro-Opera, which interprets Darwin’s writings, his life, and life on Earth as Darwin must have seen it. The subject of this review is not the opera itself, but the Knife’s studio version of it, in conjunction with Mt. Sims and German experimental songstress Planningtorock.
Boy, what a mess. It gets messier: Tomorrow, In a Year involves bona-fide opera singer Kristina Wahlin, pop vocalist Jonathan Johansson, singer/actress Laerke Winther, and the Knife’s Karin Dreijer Andersson all providing different types of vocalizing. Opera is the “DNA” and forms the basis of the performance, though I’m not certain about the symbolism of the pop element. Its progression follows the structure of Darwin’s The Origin of Species, evolution itself, and Darwin’s relationship with his family all at once, somehow. In short, unifying Tomorrow, In a Year as an easily interpretable document is arduous and probably not even possible. That’s most likely the point: Life, both in the Darwinian sense and in the way we often think of it, is extraordinarily complicated despite our best efforts to simplify it. There are interesting notions in this idea and in the different forms Tomorrow, In a Year can take, but I don’t find their aggregate effect dazzling; I find it stultifying.
This is compounded by the music itself, most of which is no picnic, and what happens when the music and the ideas collide. Hotel Pro Forma note that the opera is separated into two sections in accordance with The Origin of Species, with the first part as an abstract discourse on the natural world, and the second part as a synthesis of ideas into a theory of all life. I actually hear three parts, the first one being the weakest. “Epochs” to “Minerals” sounds like angles on the same track, whereby the instrumentalists’ groaning synth emissions meet Kristina Wahlin’s operatic mezzo-soprano. The dynamic between them is curious; you get the sense that Wahlin could shoot her vocal cords into the chandeliers and the music would still eclipse her. If this section represents Darwin’s relationship with geology, in which the H.M.S. Beagle puts him in touch with magnificent landmasses, then the instruments could be the rocks and the voice might be Darwin’s inner wonder -- but it’s a stretch. The program tells us it’s also about our own rapture at the “beauty of nature” that we feel as we witness the opera. Beauty is about the last thing I could ascribe to this; the musicians cook up a dreadful noise that suggests the rot of death more than anything out of Darwin’s pages.
The next section, from “Variation of Birds” to “Shoal Swarm Orchestra”, is centered on animal utterances the Knife recorded in the Amazon rainforest and the Icelandic wilderness. Sparse, conceptually provocative, and intensely boring, these mutated chirps and warbles make me imagine the winged creatures I might see flying and swooping deep inside a Knife pop song if I opened it up like cupboard doors. In the Knife’s modification of these natural occurrences, there may be something about human technology, however old, encroaching upon the non-mammalian life that has been around long before us and evolves with us. Still, it’s a hell of a dead spot, and when the far more realized final section arrives, the trek becomes almost worth it.
Tomorrow, In a Year’s most enjoyable songs are here, in the section from “Annie’s Box” to the ending, but because this is a record about evolution, flipping them on without passing through the previous tracks can trigger a bit of guilt. “Annie’s Box” is an interesting way to start this section off -- we move from open, practically human-less spaces to a touching elegy about Darwin’s daughter Annie, who died from disease at the age of 10. Annie’s box contained notes from Darwin about his favorite daughter’s failing health, and it’s hard not to think about him having to reconcile his beliefs about the majesty of nature with the personal tragedy of Annie’s deterioration. Before long, “Colouring of Pigeons” overtakes this small pang of human loss with a shuddering, grand-scale epic involving everything in the ecosystem asserting its collective power. But the coup de grace comes with “Seeds”, which begins with a crisp, minimal 4/4 beat, a buoyant bass and euro-chic melodies with Reich-style phasing. Whenever I hear it I’m reminded of Ricardo Villalobos, minimal techno’s ambassador of having a good time. Could it be that these characters in the profound evolutionary expanse are…partying?
It’s a rare, awesome moment of levity in a work that otherwise takes itself too seriously. All the different ways to think about Tomorrow, In a Year seem to have the opposite effect of the one that was intended. They constrict the listener’s imagination and don’t allow for any room to breathe. As I read back over my own writing, I realize that there’s so much about the Knife and Hotel Pro Forma’s conceptualization that I just completely missed. It would take me nine more reviews of Tomorrow, In a Year to capture it fully, but of course, I’m not going to write them because I’m not elated at the prospect of listening to this album over and over again. And when all is said and done, Tomorrow, In a Year needs to work as just that: An album to be played, not an exegesis to be studied. Supposedly, the opera itself in November ’09 was spectacular; the still images attest to this, and the audience must have been rapt with the feast of light, sound, and performance that characterized Darwin’s brilliant worldview. The studio counterpart doesn’t come close to approximating that, though certain moments bear their own rewards. But most of Tomorrow, In a Year is so unappetizing that my open mind goes out the window and I feel like a partygoer in Bogotá: Just deliver the goods, and we’ll call it a night.