Albums of the Decade: The Knife's Silent Shout 

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The 00's were widely considered the decade where notions of “selling out” were finally put to rest for good; where the drain-circling music industry forced artists of good conscience to see the patronage of corporate advertising as a kind of benevolent grant money, funding grander and truer visions. Olof Dreijer and Karin Dreijer Andersson, Swedish siblings who had been releasing alluringly strange pop music since 2001 as The Knife, were atypically reluctant to enter into this nu-Faustian bargain. Their cold, uncompromising 2006 electro masterpiece Silent Shout also happens to be one of the new commercial dynamic’s most irrefutable triumphs.   

Slightly annoyed by the indifference to their chilly first record (2001’s The Knife), the band made a conscious and fairly successful effort to integrate more popular styles into 2003’s still decidedly strange follow-up, Deep Cuts.  Hip-hop beats and Euro-disco decadence certainly caught more ears, and produced one of the decade’s truly sublime singles in “Heartbeats.” While that one got the chained-to-the-Internet set to take notice, it was a sighing cover version by folky countryman Jose Gonzalez that really brought their music to the masses when featured in a 2005 Sony commercial. Allowing its use was not a guiltless decision. In a 2006 Pitchfork interview Karin articulated her lingering unease: 

“We've never sold any of our own performed tracks to any commercials, so it was very hard for us. It doesn't really feel that good, but the question came when we were in the middle of Silent Shout, and we didn't have any money or anything, so it made it possible to continue working on the album, the videos and the live show. It made it possible to do quite a lot, but at the same time, it's dirty money.” 

There are traces of that guilt all over Shout: references to “money that burns in my hand,” skeevy rationalizations for participation in pornography and reiterations of the profoundly universal, “some things I do for money, some things I do for free.” But, no one can slander the group by saying they didn’t make exactly the record they had intended, a set of songs which ended up as one of the most inhuman sounding, and yet bizarrely, emotionally affecting albums of all time. 

Reflecting dissatisfaction with the pop grab-bag of sounds that brought them wider attention, Silent Shout’s instrumentation is monolithically minimal techno. All of the music itself was generated by Olof Dreijer, a self-described “narrow-minded minimal techno DJ,” as an attempt to more accurately reflect the sounds he loved as a listener. Compared to previous work, the enveloping tone of the record is muted, nearly frozen. These full-but-icy pallette makes even the most kinetic, uptempo club beat seem like an expression of unfettered unease. Calling it gothic, or gloomy, seems like underselling. The landscape Olof creates is practically post-human. 

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The difference in feel between “Heartbeats”  and Silent Shout’s lead single and title track is immense. “Heartbeats” glides on warm, throbbing radiation, evoking the sweaty club where its comprehensibly sketched (if bizarrely worded) love/lust story might have played out. The title-track has a formidable beat as well, but its synth loop is standoffish and skittering, like lights quickly blinking on a control panel in a pattern the naked eye can’t perceive. The lyrics aim for relatable terror rather than universal romanticism. Karin sings a double whammy of pervasive nightmare imagery. “Yes in my dream all my teeth fell out/ a cracked smile and a silent shout.” A dream of lost teeth is common enough that it was termed “typical” in Freud’s analysis (commonly thought to signify fear of losing control, or birth heebie-jeebies in women, though Siggy tried to sneak some masturbation guilt into his reading as well). A scream that refuses to leave the throat is an even more intuitive representation of helplessness in the face of horror. From the start, the album is playing with archetypal human anxiety. Those basic willies are delivered in a very unusual manner. 

An important subplot in the decade’s pop music narrative was the evolution of technological vocal manipulation across the entire genre spectrum. Thom Yorke famously forced his choir-boy falsetto through a very sullen filter on “Kid A” in the queasy spirit of post-millenial tension. Auto-tune became ubiquitous in radio pop and hip-hop, a transparent manifestation of subtle bum-note tweaking that producers had been doing for ages. The robo-sound eventually became an aesthetic all its own, with no less an icon than Kanye West using his most raw, crestfallen record to test the limits of its nuance on 808s and Heartbreak. At the decade’s end, dozens of DIY upstarts cloaked their singing in all manner of sludge to distract from creaky pipes, or just to cop a disaffected pose. But nobody came close to the hallucinatory fun-house mirror effect that the Knife achieved with Silent Shout. 

Fans who knew only basic biographical information about the Dreijers were sure to assume that both siblings had an active singing role on the record. Numerous tracks feature a high and feminine, though palpably unnatural, voice in concert with a separate, deeply intoned and equally unreal masculine counterpart. But every bit of singing on the record (as well as all those nightmarish lyrics) were supplied by Karin, and then fed through differing voice modulations. The way a listener interprets the singing is reflexively, falsely gender-colored, giving certain lines differently resonating meaning. When “We Share Our Mother’s Health” (even its title implies speaking for two) shifts to the lower register for the line “You say you like it/ you say you need it/ when you don’t”, it’s hard not to hear that as a chastising second perspective. It’s even more slippery in “Marble House” when Karin’s relatively un-fussed-with vocal tricks the ear into hearing the secondary voice, a couple octaves down, as similarly unmanipulated male singing. Seldom has the notion of authenticity and gender identity been so screwed with, especially within the confines of a single song. It again recalls the logic of dream analysis, where every distinct character in a particular nighttime vision is perhaps just another aspect of the dreamer. 

click to enlarge ELIN BERGE
  • Elin Berge
The uncanny valley between how artificial these vocals can sound and the genuine human frailty they often convey is unsettling. Karin’s tone in “Na Na Na” is so high and warped that it can’t help but sound like a machine, even as she begins the song by asserting, “I’ve got soul, in my bones…” The song twists even further into digital abstraction from there as the details become even more uncomfortably human, touching on specific menstrual detail and deep sexual anxiety. Even the most attentive listener is given a pass for failing to suss out disturbing lines like, “I’ve got mace, pepper-spray/ And some shoes that runs faster than a rapist rapes/ What I need is chemical castrations, hope, and godspeed.”  The crawling closer, “Still Light,” presents an artificial duet between freakishly deep-voiced and childlike versions of Karin, suggesting distinct emotions in conflict during a harrowing hospital visit. It doesn’t sound robotic, exactly, but it’s certainly not a straightforward presentation of a delicate first person experience that could have easily slipped into overwrought sentimentality. 

Even the pitch-black record’s rare glimpse of something close to normal domesticity is delivered in an alienating chirp. “From Off to On” still has a few creeptastic lyrics suggesting some sort of prolonged medical situation (“we want happiness back/ we want control of our bodies”), but at its heart it’s about gathering around the TV, daydreaming about celebrities, and indulging in a little recuperative escapism. That a synthetic voice should also express these banal sentiments is a new wrinkle in electronic music. Kraftwerk leant meaning to their revolutionarily mechanized songs by lyrically identifying as machines, albeit bots with suspiciously Teutonic accents. Daft Punk entered the decade taking the make-believe further, positing that robots themselves could be the debonair playboys fulfilling a manufactured design to fill the dancefloor. Silent Shout’s cyborg protagonists go far beyond a focus on musical performance, suggesting that if machines were sensitive enough to create such affectingly dark music, they’d be beset by the same day-to-day reality, the same amount of interior dread, as any other convicted artist. 

While the record’s dystopian synth contours precondition a mental picture of a man/machine hybrid, the way the Dreijers themselves visually presented their songs suggest that they were aiming for other associations. In the aforementioned Pitchfork interview, Karin articulated her desire to distance the music even further from a standard autobiographical singer/songwriter reading, “It's fiction. A more unnatural way would be to stand there with your own face and with your private life-- that's not healthy or good for the music.”  That conviction was reinforced by scores of publicity photos taken in matching ink-black Venetian death masks. 

But the band’s choices for visuals were illuminating, in spite of the distancing efforts. The Knife’s visual identity was largely the work of longtime collaborator Andreas Nilsson, who channeled some of their key influences to stunning effect. The title track’s video is a putty-faced approximation of Charles Burns’ 90s-and-00s-spanning graphic novel masterwork, Black Hole. In the comic, teen angst manifests itself as a sexually transmitted disease, the sufferers grotesquely warping to reflect inner lust-fueled guilt. In their heavily art-directed stage show, the performers are obscured by a sinister flurry of disquieting imagery bringing to mind David Lynch at his most surreally expressionistic. That both artists are best known for illuminating the dark heart of the American Pacific Northwest’s tree-dominated suburbia, is no real coincidence. 

Swedish pop music has been omnipresent for decades, but the prevailing iconography of it has primarily been impossibly blond hit-makers in sequined suits. (Black metal was always too extreme and cartoonish to read as anything more than a fringe representation.) The persistent gloom of the local weather, and the proximity to the dark, mysterious heart of the forest gives rural Sweden more in common with the Pacific Northwest than one might instantly assume.  Silent Shout’s most paranoid, frantic track, “Forest Families,” neatly sums up the dynamic in its opening lines, “too far away from the city/ some kids left on their own.” 

The Knife presented a much darker, more depressive shade of Perfect Cheekbones Land in a way that seemed counterintuitive and exotic at the time, but has since started to gain further traction with popular art like the elegantly bleak 2008 vampire flick, Let the Right One In, and even Karin’s own Fever Ray solo project. But the combination of pristine soundcraft and a calculated aesthetic refusal to be reduced to a solitary account from any one point of view (or even a single gender), guarantees that Silent Shout will be the version of dark Scandinavia that resonates most deeply in the coming years. It's also pretty darn danceable. If only every band’s ethical compromise could produce such a majestic result.

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