It’s shocking to hear Karin Dreijer Andersson’s voice break on the first track of The Knife’s new record. What we’ve come to even think of as her voice has actually been an eerily treated combination of human and machine tones. She’s used a cyborg’s voice to sinisterly, surreally express lots of pain and discomfort before, but the point in which she, a human woman, reaches the far end of her range has been elaborately hidden. It’s crazy how recognizable she’s sounded peeking out from a digital shadow. On “A Tooth For an Eye,” stretched out, screaming, she seems finally flesh and blood. It’s hardly a relief.
Ten years or so since their first hit “Heartbeats”, and it’s hard to even state how influential the band has become. It’s like synth-pop speaks an entirely new language because of Sweden’s Dreijer siblings. Where James Murphy’s LCD Soundsystem sounded like the graceful send-off to decades of synthesized influences, the Knife’s 2006 masterpiece Silent Shout felt like a beginning of something new. Vocal manipulation is as important to modern music as guitar tone or drum sound once was, and no one has used the technique to more deliberate, uncanny effect. About two bands a week debut singles that press releases describe as “Knife-esque”, heavy with synthetically melodic steel drum sounds and vague, dark suggestion. On Shaking the Habitual, Olof Dreijer crafts deviously complex dystopian techno rhythms that make all those new bands sound instantly dated. If The Knife still even make dance music, it’s for a fucking weird club.
Their new record is formally challenging, to put it mildly. Its title’s narrowest interpretation is literal, describing an attempt to disrupt the way we routinely consume records on the edges of our lives, streaming from gadgets meant to do other things. Its very size is willfully out of step, a formidable 90-minute monster in direct opposition to eroding attention spans. There’s a perversity in how they lay down that challenge to pay sustained attention, and then test your limits even further, pausing the record for 20 full minutes of brooding ambient drone. Or how they layer beats into “Full of Fire”’s impossibly delirious stacks, emulating pressure building in your temples until your head might finally explode. It’s frequently assaulting and noncommercial. The torture they felt over taking the “Heartbeats” ad money that paid for Silent Shout isn’t about to be repeated, unless stress migraines decide to really start marketing themselves.
Compare it to a truly off-putting piece of recent music like Scott Walker’s Bish Bosch for some perspective on how far they go to actually repel a listener, though. Sure, they too can take things to excesses on the border of absurdity and disgust. (I mean, “Without You My Life Would Be Boring” starts on the words, “a handful of elf pee…”) But their music feels way more connected and contained than the “pure unlistenable art” description that’s already setting in. It seethes with rage at the outside world, but it doesn’t keep itself sequestered from it.
They’ve made it abundantly clear, with their sinister fetish videos, preachy cartoon strips, and grad school terminology, that they’ve got something to say this time beyond just elegant nightmare images or garbled remembrances. In the widely cited interview they gave Pitchfork ahead of the release, they brought up issues with poverty, sexism, and racism that they see even in Sweden’s supposed socialist dreamland. For makers of such dark effective art, they sounded sort of surprisingly naïve and utopian. Certainly not wrong about ingrained societal injustice, just pretty unrealistic about fighting it. But acknowledging deeply held, pointedly articulated beliefs is the album’s great risk. Maybe the riskiest thing the band could have done. They seem eager to discard the rarest possible commodity there is for modern public figures, a real, hard-fought privacy and the mystery that comes with it. (No one will ever be able to retweet Karin Dreijer Andersson.) They’d made themselves a myth, but decided they’d rather be college professors?
You could always find political intent in The Knife’s work if you wanted to dissect. There was something radical in Karin’s refusal to be a glamorous pop star, in the way her cyborg singing went way past androgyny, into “genderless” or “multiple choice.” They saved their creepiest declarations of unease for their least human tones, betraying dissatisfaction with how mechanical we’re all becoming. They mangled their faces on camera. But suggestive blanks weren’t cutting it any more. “Who looks after my story?” Dreijer wails on “Full of Fire”, sounding furious that she’d ever left so much so vague.
I’ve always personally resisted overtly political music, or at least viewed with heavy suspicion music that doesn’t wrap its activism up with skillful metaphor or surreal allusion. By the time I started listening to punk with enough intent to really get it, it was already classic rock, another format to be fucked with, undermined. Too literal, too limited. The Knife was always getting at something, but there was a weird comfort in never knowing quite what it was. I’ve argued with folks multiple times with over my long-standing, visceral annoyance with Fugazi, and they’ll probably have a good long chuckle upon hearing The Knife quote their lyrics directly on “Raging Lung.” I can feel myself recoiling a bit from some of their words on the page, getting reflexively jaded about espoused absolutes. But reading along to the lyric sheet is unusually reductive here. In context, in your earbuds, this stuff is actually upsetting, literally pulse-quickening. It makes you feel like something is wrong rather than telling you it is. It’s the sounds that startle, not the slogans.
Dwelling on what makes the record difficult and uncomfortable also ignores the times it’s completely sublime. Those who’ve been beaten into submission by the aggressive opening tracks, those who blinked in the middle of “Old Dreams Waiting to Be Realized” and signed off, may never make it to the album closing “Ready to Lose”. Another bit of defiance, sequencing the record’s most elegant, economical statement after about an hour and a half of lingering hell and torment. The deep, dope beats! The open space! How sinister and alluring they make a pop song (yes, pop song) that argues for communist redistribution like some earnest kid with a clipboard you might sympathize with as you avoid them on the street. The mystery of intent is gone. But the song is just gorgeous. The death masks come off to reveal two imperfect humans, nonetheless exerting full control on insanely intense art. That might be an even scarier concept to wrestle with.