The Knife: Shaking the Habitual

The Knife
Shaking the Habitual

Don’t say the Knife didn’t warn you that Shaking the Habitual wouldn’t conform to any preconceptions you might’ve held about the Swedish duo, its music, or even mass-produced popular culture in general, because the title all but announces the Dreijer siblings’ contrarian streak and critical edge. An uncompromising, intimidating, but rewarding listen, Shaking the Habitual is more than the name of the Knife’s long-awaited new project, but a mission statement that defines the artistic, political, and philosophical aims that Karin Dreijer Andersson and Olof Dreijer are advancing through their avant-garde music. After all, they circulated a manifesto in place of a press release, summing up the mindset behind Shaking the Habitual with the rallying cry, “No habits! There are other ways to do things.” So whether you’re talking about challenging unquestioned bedrock beliefs or unconscious expectations of what pop music is, Shaking the Habitual is about pushing buttons and moving past boundaries, an over 90-minute tour-de-force of strange, haunting sounds and complex, idiosyncratic structures. Made up of instants when melody becomes rhythm and vice versa, when you can’t tell the difference between what’s organic and synthetic or what’s a natural voice and a distorted one, Shaking the Habitual‘s iconoclastic aesthetic is all about getting to you to notice so much that’s taken for granted when you listen to music.

In the run-up to the release of Shaking the Habitual, much has been made about the Dreijers’ radical anti-establishment agenda, as they’ve questioned everything from political institutions to the patterns of our everyday lives to the social forces that shape our identities. In interviews, the pair has namechecked contemporary thinkers like Judith Butler and academic concepts like intersectionality and postcolonial feminism more often than they’ve referred to their peers or musical trends. In effect, the Knife is using its turn in the spotlight as a teachable moment, less invested in reveling in the hype built up for Shaking the Habitual than in using the opportunity to urge its audience to follow its example and think more deeply about the impact art can have on society: In effect, Dreijer Andersson basically outlines the album’s thesis on “Full of Fire”, when she rasps, “Sometimes I get problems that are hard to solve / What’s your story? / That’s my opinion.” In seeking a solution to those hard problems, the Knife doesn’t shy away from grappling with the thorny issues of gender, class, and race, as Olof Dreijer explained to Pitchfork: “Being brought up in a white wealthy family in a Western country, we were privileged. And we have a privileged position as people being able to make music and study and get asked about what we think about the general political situation. This brings responsibility.”

But their thought-provoking musings and political screeds would hardly be as potent if not for the way the Knife executes its vision in its music — on Shaking the Habitual, the musical medium is really the main message. With the two singles “A Tooth for an Eye” and “Full of Fire” at the top of the tracklist, Shaking the Habitual starts with a two-pronged assault on your senses and sensibilities that gets you to pay attention to not only the content they give voice to, but the form it’s packaged in as well. Of the two, the opener “A Tooth for an Eye” is the more shocking piece because it feels as organic as it does synthetic, as clattering, irregular percussion and live instrumentation vie with pinging state-of-the-art samples and canny programming. If you could ever call the Knife’s sound world music, you might here with the vaguely tribal and tropical tones on “A Tooth for an Eye”, as its acoustic elements bleed into the cadence of the electronic sounds, which come out in dribs and drabs as the song proceeds. In comparison, “Full of Fire” might better scratch the itch that Knife devotees have been feeling for the last seven years, but it takes advantage of its more user-friendly platform to get its socially engaged agenda across. Adding more heft and bolder colors to the playfulness of the Knife’s past triumphs, “Full of Fire” conveys its serious message on unequal gender relations with visceral thrills and clever wit, especially when the robotic chanting riffs off Salt-n-Pepa with the refrain, “Let’s talk about gender, baby / Let’s talk about you and me.”

Indeed, Shaking the Habitual succeeds in pushing listeners out of their comfort zones musically and intellectually because the Dreijers have moved further out of their own, going so far as to question whether the Knife could still go by the same name when its music has changed so much from its earlier work. As Dreijer Andersson told Pitchfork, “that was also something we discussed, like, ‘Should we change our name? Maybe we shouldn’t be the Knife anymore because we are doing something very different.’ But I think it’s really more important to keep the name and do something completely different.” In that way, Shaking the Habitual could be the Knife’s Kid A, eliciting reactions equivalent to those Radiohead’s game-changer initially did when it prodded and provoked those conditioned for a redux of OK Computer, only to be appreciated later as a more challenging and fully realized effort where form and content became inextricably meshed.

While it might seem scandalous to suggest it, Shaking the Habitual, with its depth and layers of orchestration, makes even the Knife’s 2006 landmark Silent Shout feel relatively simplistic and almost monochromatic, when you compare it to the trickier rhythms, booming percussion, and more diverse instrumentation they’ve come up with this time around. Certainly, many of the group’s signature moves are front and center, particularly the hyperactive beats and the clinical dance-pop synths, but they are blended in with so many more intricately crafted parts that they appear almost unfamiliar in the new contexts they’re placed. The alluringly sinister “Raging Lung” is as good an example as any of how the Knife can balance techno know-how and a warm-blooded imagination, combining experimental electronics with a free-form, jazz-like dynamic that comes through not just in the yippy, improv-y horns, but also in the play with structure. Flesh-and-bone sloppy and machine-like precise at the same time, “Raging Lung” typifies how Shaking the Habitual unsettles how we perceive and process sounds, one of the album’s goals, according to Olof Dreijer in an interview with The Guardian: “We are really into criticising this idea that there are some sounds that people would consider more authentic than others. And the way we’d do that would be to get sounds that you don’t really know where they come from.”

That’s a good way to describe the listening experience that Shaking the Habitual delivers, particularly how the first half of the album establishes an unpredictable tone, mixing in acoustic instrumental parts with imposing synthetic elements to create juxtapositions that blur the distinctions between what’s normally defined as live performance and programmed music. Intro’d to swathes of electronic wash, “Cherry on Top” takes a turn for the unexpected when it adopts a spiritual tone and builds to a cathedral-like sense of scale, as smudged-out organs, Chinese opera-ish vocal tones, clattering vibrations on strings, and glockenspiel-y gamelan (or is it the other way around?) are superimposed over a futuristic soundscape. Better yet, the frenetic “Without You My Life Would Be Boring” lives up to its title, full of lush, energetic live playing that’s imbued with an almost Asian sense of theatricality created from resounding percussion and breathless minor key woodwinds. But then, “Wrap Your Arms Around Me” somehow takes things even further, with its grand, imperious beats and Middle Eastern overtones blooming to reach a fevered emotional pitch, almost like a crunchy, slo-mo take on Björk’s “Army of Me” or a remix of Massive Attack’s “Angel” gone full-on avant-garde.

When the tracks that are a little more reminiscent of the Knife’s previous work appear later on, the earlier pieces have already set up how you might appreciate them, as the ingenious permutations of textures and structures come through powerfully. As with “Full of Fire”, the most recognizably Knife-like numbers are more daring and muscular in their profile than their predecessors, as well as broader in their palettes. In particular, “Networking” might be the closest to what you’d think of as the Platonic ideal of a Knife song, its ping-ponging, morse-code beats more intriguing and compelling than your typical club-night fare because of the irregularities built into the rhythms, which wiggle and squirm to odd time signatures. And although “Stay Out Here” evokes the “haunted house” vibe the Knife helped to pioneer, there’s just something more adventurous and intense about it, as the glitchy, galloping beats they’re known for are accentuated by live percussion, rubbery bass pulses, and almost operatic boy-girl vocals howling out the title.

So if there’s a moral to the story on Shaking the Habitual, it’s that what you say carries greater weight when you attach just as much meaning to how you say it. That’s what comes through loudest and clearest on the closing number “Ready to Lose”, which, befitting the contradictory nature of the album and the band, ends Shaking the Habitual on perhaps its most direct and catchiest note. When Dreijer Andersson announces in the chorus, “Ready to lose a privilege,” the Knife’s manifesto for social change finds its strongest articulation, as she strings together sloganeering aphorisms that call for the “rearranging of desires”, a “transfer of possessions”, and “an end to succession”. But it’s because the Knife can musically walk the walk that these demands aren’t just all talk, as the severe, heavy beats that begin the song come on like an impending doom that’s encroaching nearer and nearer. But when it arrives, it’s more embracing than harrowing, as if the Knife took a Stereolab lounge-pop pattern, then slowed it down and stretched it out to make it feel like a moment of calm lucidity after the apocalypse instead of a cocktail party at the end of the world.

Though it comes at the very conclusion of Shaking the Habitual, “Ready to Lose” feels as much like the beginning of what’s yet to come as it does the end of this particular chapter for the Knife, both because the album will undoubtedly reveal more and more of itself as time goes on and because the Knife’s musical activism seems like it may be just getting warmed up. As with many things utopian in their vision, Shaking the Habitual proves that imagining there is something more, something different is an initial step that’s actually not as easy to take as it might seem — Shaking the Habitual is, to paraphrase the Knife’s lyrics, hard to solve, but, then again, so are the issues the Dreijers are tackling on it. Maybe the twenty minutes of drone on “Old Dreams Waiting to Be Realized” or the ten minutes of cutting, deconstructed horror noise that “Fracking Fluid Injection” consists of may test your patience more than social norms and artistic conventions, but they are part and parcel of how Shaking the Habitual relentlessly challenges and reshapes what counts as a musical experience. That’s ultimately the triumph of Shaking the Habitual, that the Knife has created a work of art that’s not just a dream waiting to be realized, but a living, breathing reality that’s waking you up to what’s possible in the wildest of imaginations.

RATING 9 / 10


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