Page 2 of 2
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.
Photo by Elin Berge