An exploration into the unknown, a creative renascence rife with humanitarian purpose, an album’s worth of songs begging questions, challenging how we listen. And, all kinds of other things people say/write/harbor/think/feel/solicit when they’re excited, inspired by something.
These and much more orbiting the heads of Swedish brother and sister Olof Dreijer and Karen Dreijer Andersson, otherwise known as, The Knife—those responsible for this mammoth, Shaking The Habitual (2013).
This mountainous, triple LP is The Knife’s most challenging and involved work yet. Convoluted, even; but with The Knife’s own wild panache that whips up sound into something marvelously transfixing, convoluted as it may be. They’re back with some new thoughts and questions, and a much bigger sound swallowing and spitting them out. So don your thinking cap or grab a combat helmet—the light is bright, the floor is falling.
I. A Story, Some Questions, Facts, Fiction
It’s been some seven years since the release of their last LP, Silent Shout (2006). At that time they were often seen wearing Venetian style masks with beaked projections. The Knife desired, publicly, that attention be paid to the identity they chose rather than the one they were naturally given. Though the masks changed, the question covering them remained the same: Why? A trick of the senses, these two were playing, challenging the mind to reinterpret what the dim-witted eye cannot decipher, but only show. They liked to think about and play with perception and identity. They still do.
Some find this irritating. Storm behind the eyes, comes the hot flash of irritability: Who do these people think they are? I’m tired of being toyed with by privileged/sheltered/protected artists who only have the time to think about the world because they do not truly live in it. Just give us your talent and don’t make such a tit for tat fuss about it!—Such thoughts stemmed, but the music, the music, it was enough to silence whatever games The Knife might play on the outside.
About that irritation: it’s understandable. What’s more: they, The Knife, they understand. They’re irritated, too, and thinking heavily about it. Specifically, they’re thinking about privileges—their own and those of others. They’re thinking about rights. In fact, The Knife recognize their unique privilege as artists to be able to devote themselves entirely to their art without many of the distractions that often inhibit artistic growth in economically hungry environments.
The Knife also profess their desire (much attention paid to that word on Shaking The Habitual) to fearlessly think, theorize, conceptualize and challenge what strikes them; to “fail more,” to “act without authority.” This, interestingly enough, is put forth by The Knife in a video-interview/short film in which many of the ideas surrounding Shaking The Habitual are expressed mostly while The Knife play with each other on a swing set—an interesting juxtaposition of mindfulness with a physical expression of dalliance demanding careful interpretation. The thought-impression from the video interview reads something like: Though we play, we mean it.
As The Knife will tell you in the interview, making a record wasn’t even on their minds at all. Dreijer comments: “We just wanted to do something; but had to find a purpose.” Andersson shines a light on the far-reaching influences that came to play such a pivotal role in making Shaking The Habitual, when she says: “We get our language back through the language of others,” following Dreijer’s statement: “We approached each other through books . . . .”
Considering that this record wasn’t made out of any dire need, like feeding one’s self, paying rent, or fulfilling contractual obligations to some blood-hunting record company (The Knife own and operate their own record label, Rabid Records), the fact that The Knife were able to scratch their heads a bit and muse over the why instead of stressing over the when (yes, an advantage conferred by one of their unique privileges), is a fact the listener might be thankful for. The listener might also share in The Knife’s advantages if only for the fact that they’ve employed them responsibly, not to mention powerfully, with great thought and much feeling.
Yes, well, however it is the listener feels about artistic integrity and those in such positions of power, will undoubtedly affect his or her interpretation of what The Knife has done/are doing. Though, it’s interesting to think about how many artists are actually challenging listeners. Andersson hints at it when she quips, “Music can be so meaningless.”
Seven years. . . . Apart from The Knife, Andersson released an LP under the moniker, Fever Ray, while Dreijer kept busy with his project, Oni Ayhun. Time alone warranted a warm welcome of new material by Knife fans drooling with hungry ears. And ultimately, after much deliberation and collaborative efforts with friends, The Knife made an album simply because they were inspired to. But that’s about as simple as this story gets.
Shaking The Habitual not only satisfies the hunger to listen, it also has the potential to implode the eardrums and surfeit the mind as well. And yes, that’s intentional. You ask: Why? And The Knife, they say: “We have a bellyache, a big stink, a major grouse or two with manufactured knowledge. But how do you build an album about not knowing? Now your voice is in my throat, floating there . . . .”
As the record spins, we hear The Knife’s way of voicing old freedoms. We hear questions, invitations, protestations, as they catch and collect some of those floating voices from the vessels of Fugazi, Salt-N-Pepa, Jeanette Winterson, Michel Foucault, Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, Nina Björk and Karl Marx (and, of course, many more) in their brainy throat. While those voices find their expression through The Knife’s unique interpretation, those of artists Emily Roysdon and Shannon Funchess (of Light Asylum), sing themselves not within The Knife’s frame, but from the bowels of their own nature, in the powerful, “Stay Out Here.”
We hear The Knife express the desire to reformulate the protest song with the crumbling-castle-walls structure of, “A Cherry On Top,” and their stirring representation of man’s crass and relentless abuse of Earth’s natural beauty with “Fracking Fluid Injection”; we hear The Knife artfully communicate societal distaste with a vibrant oriental tinge in, “A Tooth For An Eye”; we hear them expose economical inequality and injustice with the lucid brains of sound and language in sharp hues—and that’s simply splattered all over this one.
Buckets of hot pink and teal green are hurled wildly onto canvases as the chasm-face of the creative itch. Wild images, too, of a screaming hand on a doorstep, bucket of tiger pee, and a raging lung choked up on “western standards,” where “poverty’s profitable.”
The Title: The Knife chose it from the work of French philosopher, Michel Foucault—the inspiration from his work featuring prominently in this one. Not too long ago, Foucault wrote that “to shake up habitual ways of working and thinking, to dissipate conventional familiarities, to re-evaluate rules and institutions, and to participate in the formation of a political will (where he has his role as citizen to play),” is the true work of the intellectual. The Knife employ Foucault’s quote in their work as a lumberjack does the ax in his, and the results are just as striking.
The Artwork: blurry pink and teal green swirls of finger print color pools, offering a visual representation of the vibrant touch shaping and plucking questions from the sound.
The Comic: One of political interest, its creator, Liv Strömquist, calls it, “End Extreme Wealth,” and it is a deliberate effort to shift focus from the overwhelming number of the poor to the veritable “10% of the population controlling 85% of the world’s assets.” Have a look at a few panels below:
There’s even a manifesto, yes, manifesto, accompanying Shaking The Habitual. And, as mentioned earlier, an official interview/short film in which The Knife shed light on what kindled the sparks that became Shaking The Habitual’s fire.
Within the manifesto you’ll find other word-beams to light your way around this vast work, like: “No habits! There are other ways to do things”; and, “Everyone is always desiring already imagined things.” Or even: “All over the dance floor we’re asking: can this DNA turn into something else? It’s not metaphorical. It’s explicit.”
But why? Why a manifesto, interview-film, politically charged comic, and philosophical implementation in songs featuring such subjects as extreme wealth, gender, identity and feminism?
II. The Music, Stabs at Answers, (More) Questions, Less Punning
Yes, The Knife leave us with much to think about . . . graciously, though, with beats to accompany the challenge. (There’s aspirin on top of Finnegan’s Wake. Help yourself).
With that said, those who just want to dance still need not turn away. It’s okay to just dance. Again, The Knife, they understand; they accommodate the need. You can move freely without theorizing or popping aspirin’s to many of these songs. Be the dancer by getting a hold of “Wrap Your Arms Around Me,” and getting lost within its Earth-shaking percussion. Have fun blowing your white-hot flute from the iceberg with “Without You My Life Would Be Boring.” Get moving and stay moving.
Hear the budding lure of “A Tooth For An Eye.” Some have penned this track as contrived listener-bait, a sweet, see-you-around kiss for the arduous journey up the mountain, as the tracks to follow stray largely from the rhythmic togetherness and pop-sheen that glosses this one over.
Some might be right. Though, lyrically, the tone is anything but lighthearted.
“A Tooth For An Eye” is infectiously vivacious, bursting with lithe instrumental layers. Andersson’s vocals demand attention as she cries out: “Another kid needs to suck on my / thumb,” giving her voice to those “who haven’t / Bad luck”; and when she stretches her cords to crack, belting out Jeanette Winterson’s words, “I’m telling you stories / Trust me,” the message arrives by the screeching voice of urgency within the solid frame of beats clean, ornate and robust; the emotive power fights for the ear’s conviction that this voice has something humanly important to communicate.
But that’s just the power of music, isn’t it? The pendulum push to ecstasy, to the depth of great feeling—to get there, music routes us. Say anything with the right beat; music enlivens the senses that deceive without discretion, right? Hm.
Take these lines from “Without You My Life Would Be Boring”:
A handful of elf pee
That’s my soul
Spray it all over
Fill the bowl.
Strange language. Even stranger action it commands. The academic reads it, removes a finger from his mouth, mumbles “abstruse”; grabs the collected poems of Stéphane Mallarmé, rifling through pages for proof of The Knife’s plagiarism. It’s not there. —Nobody’s got a clue about somebody else’s subjectivity except that it’s only human.
But does the strangeness of the language attenuate the otherwise optimal marrow of Shaking The Habitual’s whole? Does it leave listener’s scratching their heads over the world-heavy, socially conscious ideas and attitudes conveyed by the artists elsewhere, combined with this seemingly (are words masks here?) puerile wordplay? Are they just simply playing with more than music?
—Who cares, right? The sound’s enough. The dancer moving to it won’t be admired for mind any more than the lyricist will for these words; but, strange as they are, they somehow fit within the sound well enough, though to explain how require’s a language different from this one. Yet still, the message is bright and clear within the sound, the movement, the instrumental action that propels the words.
Though they often play with fire, The Knife, ultimately, simply, play; and that shines through—on “Without You My Life Would Be Boring,” especially. Hear it just over the two-minute mark in the flighty congregation of jovial players (sounds like rejuvenated children) blowing their instruments hard. They’re not exactly in tune with each other from a technical standpoint, yet still the song is played with togetherness. The voices combined, surging and converging through the woodwind instruments betrays dalliance, fun, gaiety, energy. This is part of the duality of sound heard on Shaking The Habitual that truly marks its sentience. Mistakes are made, there’s joy in the sound, the players are having fun. This is human, and happening.
Elsewhere on the album, lyrics and music swirl about the core of The Knife’s newfound inspiration much more clearly. Take “A Cherry On Top,” for instance. (Or, “Full Of Fire,” “Fracking Fluid Injection,” “Raging Lung,” “Ready To Lose”).
“A Cherry On Top,” musically, sounds like degradation underpinned by the frivolity of child’s play. It’s like light, but darkness coming. The song’s over eight minutes in length, but contains just four lines. No repetition either. Not a verse, not a chorus—just these lines:
Strawberry, melon, a cherry on top
Butter, popcorn that I can pop
Coffee with girls and a racing team
The Haga castle evening cream.
So what? What does it mean?
Consider again the manifesto, interview, comic exclaiming: “END EXTREME WEALTH!”
The lyrics of “A Cherry On Top,” simple and yet perplexing as they may appear to be, effectively express the extravagant wealth in waste that marks the life of the human mind willfully dulled/degraded/debauched/(murdered?) by immoderate pleasure—the kind bought by wealth beyond measure; the kind propagated by that richly troubled Western attitude of there’s always more. In this song, this particular voice of The Knife conjures up a life of little else than pleasurable pursuits and the desire to communicate them, leaving the contemplation of such an ultimately vapid life up to listeners to consider.
Despite what’s offered here, what isn’t expressed harbors much of the same, if not more, power. What would the voice of such a one as this have to express over “coffee with girls”? Doubtless not a word on what writhes in the grime outside Haga castle walls, like children wandering without mother’s or bread; or the unforgiving reality of not enough outside an exclusive world of exorbitant pleasure reserved for those who can simply pay for it.
Here, in “A Cherry On Top,” explicitly, with literally and figuratively fruitful imagery, is the mind stuffed; thought is blindsided with the capital declamation of Strömquist partnered with The Knife to END EXTREME WEALTH! The Knife snatch a floating voice they find noxious and reinstate it within the dark, harrowing form of their gnarling music like taking a bite out of a blood-dipped strawberry. The sound of “A Cherry On Top” tells us there’s a knife in the toy box. The lyrics prime us to think about why that is. Four lines—more than enough food for thought if you can stomach it.
On another cut, The Knife incite the why with “Full Of Fire,” Shaking The Habitual’s first officially released single. Here’s that sweaty electronica nodded to earlier, rife with blaring beats undergoing mutation as well as a tooth and nail techno assault on the curious and unsuspecting ear.
It begins simply—boom-tap, boom-boom-boom-tap—before layer after layer of acidulous bite. Although “Full Of Fire” follows “A Tooth For An Eye,” it could’ve just as easily kicked off the album, as it presages the swarm of memorable discordance and sound experiments to follow.
Regardless, within this fast-evolving, nine-minute haunt of a track, enters the viper-bite of the more wilder—acrid, even—voices The Knife have chosen to adopt and employ to great effect. The wide wonder of the question mark watermark’s the lyrics, as Andersson sings with a menacingly strange and raspy whisper: “Sometimes I get problems that are hard to solve . . . Questions and the answers can take very long / Here’s a story / What’s your opinion”; and, with mischievous delight: “When you’re full of fire / What’s the object of your desire.”
Sound-wise, the twisted reeling of bold and noisy scratches, blips and scrawls, entwine themselves around unstable vocals, creating quite the impression of discomfort. Hauntingly luring fugues pump through a morass swamped by craggy beats and the haze of hot noise. Through all of this, Andersson’s voice emits manifold messages while undergoing tonal transformation by electronic experimentations in distortion and unorthodox instrumentation.
Hear the emotionally detached, yet erotic, tone in the “Ha ha ha ha ha” that follows the following lines born of The Knife’s feminist / queer theory studies:
Not a vagina
It’s an option
Had it coming.
Hear the voice of Salt-N-Pepa when Karin’s drops spiraling into the robotic funnel cloud where a genderless, quasi-human voice cries: “Lets talk about gender baby / Lets talk about you and me.”
Yes, oftentimes questions are raised, conversation invited. However, sometimes, even words are too much.
In “Fracking Fluid Injection”—a nine-minute lament giving voice to the environmentally disastrous practice known as “fracking” (look it up)—words are exchanged for the cry and moan of the voice embodying crystal clear pain. This is the voice of the mountain, a life that cannot scream.
Sounds of metallic invasion, of dark, unethical power unyielding; the sound of beauty demolished by rape, mark “Fracking Fluid Injection.” This might be the most powerful protestation heard on the album. It’s no easy listen, but considering the action its title embodies, why / how could it be?
III. The Madness of Hunting Conclusions in the Circle
With the average length of each track at least seven minutes long, Shaking The Habitual challenges listeners to immerse, even lose, themselves. The Knife are involved, and they demand nothing less of their listeners. Cut and copy playlists make the delivery of Shaking The Habitual’s power tenuous, more than likely impossible.
IV. . . . .
With the friends and lovers called upon to help them, The Knife have created an album bursting with challenges, offering listeners a work to be spun over and again, each listen bringing with it something additional to consider (like why that twenty-minute instrumental, “Old Dreams Waiting To Be Realized,” that seemingly provides no discernible connection between what precedes or follows it?).
What might be most exciting is the thought of where The Knife will go from here; what will invoke the drive for their next aural exploration; what the “rearranging of desires” will do for their creative output; what “bending their souls again” will do; but, simply, what their voice will offer the listening world.