By now it’s routine: any act who’s ever touched a synth will, at some point in their career, either namedrop or get compared to the Knife. Just a few of them: Icona Pop, Niki and the Dove, Lykke Li, Purity Ring, AlunaGeorge, Kate Boy, Chairlift, CHVRCHES, Charli XCX, iamamiwhoami, Grimes, Robyn, even Britney Spears when she was all innovative. Just as a Kate Bush comparison has become standard for any female vocalist whose voice is a little loopy, or a Fiona Apple comparison for anyone shedding feelings, the Swedish duo is now shorthand for any act, from Sweden or not, who makes dance music slightly a-kilter. The comparisons aren’t wrong -- in Deep Cuts’ deep cuts are the blueprints for about half of 2012’s indie-pop hits. It’s just that now the Knife, for their first proper album in years, has delivered a Foucault-quoting concept slab instead, where the “singles” are umpteen-minute sonic threshers and everything else is doomy sprawl. And it’s great.
"Even the catchier tracks become so by pummeling you with as much sound from as many different sources per second; the longer ones, meanwhile, lie dormant to catch you unaware when the noise picks up and all the surrounding walls seem like they’re about to crumble."
In a Guardian feature on the album, Olof Dreijer said, in what’s now a hilarious understatement, that Shaking the Habitual is “pretty different from the Knife.” If you want to quibble with him, it’s not that different. All the album’s noisy highs can be traced to the group’s back catalogue: the crashing “I Take Time” from the Knife, the crashing-even-harder KNIFEHORSE remix of “Marble House” from Silent Shout, the frenetic, practically shouted “We Share Our Mother’s Health” from the same album, or the parts of Deep Cuts that don’t sound more like happy hardcore, proto-Ariel Rechtshaid or anything José González (remember that guy?) would go near. For atmosphere, there’s Karin Dreijer Andersson’s solo album Fever Ray, which is like a slow pan over a post-apocalyptic landscape; the songs themselves are almost secondary. And for sprawl, there are the interludes and recitatives on the Knife’s last project, the Charles Darwin opera Tomorrow in a Year -- particularly “Tumult,” which sounds like the track that used to be there was bombed out -- or Silent Shout’s “The Captain,” which takes about three minutes of ambience before anyone starts to sing. That’s nothing compared to Shaking the Habitual’s centerpiece, the 19-minute drone “Old Dreams Waiting to be Realized,” but it’s an eternity on a pop scale. (“The Captain,” incidentally, is track three of “Silent Shout,” so this isn’t the first time the Knife have tossed a wrench into the pacing.)
But then again, you know, Shaking the Habitual is an album with a 19-minute drone. And then there’s a 10-minute one, “Fracking Fluid Injection,” which is as good a description as any (alternate title: “Ducks Lining Up for the Slaughter"). Silent Shout wasn’t a pop album, exactly, but it was built like one. It had choruses and earworms. Karin’s voice was pitched down, but her cadences still carried. You can pinpoint its hooks without much argument. Shaking the Habitual has hooks too, and sticky ones (the jittery synth line from “Without You My Life Would Be Boring” is particularly hard to dislodge), but the more apt term might be meathooks -- sharp, bloodied, something you could use as a weapon. It’s not that the album’s “difficult,” per se -- nothing here is as instantly abrasive as Tomorrow in a Year’s “Variation of Birds,” which starts with loud feedback and ends up sounding as much like birdsong as an arcade machine being kicked on either side by nine-year-olds -- but that it’s unforgiving. For every time Karin sounds like she’s fronting a poppier dance act again -- the echoes that close the let’s-call-it-a-chorus of Without You My Life Would Be Boring,” or the parts of “Stay Out Here” that almost evoke R&B -- but more often she sounds weary and defeated, usually on what would have been a love lyric. Even the catchier tracks become so by pummeling you with as much sound from as many different sources per second; the longer ones, meanwhile, lie dormant to catch you unaware when the noise picks up and all the surrounding walls seem like they’re about to crumble.
The Knife would probably find something metaphorical about that. Shaking the Habitual isn’t being promoted as a grand return to dance form, or a bid for artistic cred, like you might expect. This time, it’s political. Bundled with the album, like a pamphlet, is a sprawling prose-poem manifesto about life, the universe, and everything capitalistically wrong about both: “There’s a blood system promoting biology as destiny. A series of patriarchies that’s a problem to the Nth degree. What about hyper-capitalism, this homicidal class system, the school system that’s kaput?” It’s a bit of a surprise. The Knife have always worked with leftist types, most recently Tomorrow, in a Year collaborator and performance artist Planningtorock, but they’ve never been this explicitly political on record, mostly as a function of never really saying much of anything on record. That was their calling card, secrecy -- masking their faces, disguising their voices, waiting years to tour. But secrecy isn’t so tenable anymore, not when every third buzz band has “unique and mysterious origins,” when every cumulative “rare” interview exists in not-so-rare aggregate on Google’s caches, and when it doesn’t take navigating a mail-order labyrinth in Sweden but spending five minutes on YouTube to hear Dreijer Andersson’s old project, Honey Is Cool, in which she sounds basically like a normal singer and the band basically like a normal Swedish indie-pop act. They’ve kept a bit of the mystery for Shaking the Habitual -- they’ve got their backs turned to the camera for their photoshoots, and they’re reportedly not doing face-to-face interviews this album cycle -- but the end goal is different.
That said, everyone writing about the Knife’s political aims are probably taking them about 100 times more seriously than Karin or Olof are. The album’s got an accompanying comic strip that’s like artist Liv Strömquist channeling Kate Beaton channeling an Occupy zine, but that strip’s populated by characters named Drs. Blumi Blami and Tra La La, whose expert opinions on the problems of our age are about as tongue-in-cheek. Ask Olof: “We thought about releasing [Shaking the Habitual] under another name, then we thought it’s actually more funny to call it the Knife.” (There’s at least a 25% chance they’re trolling everyone in the first paragraph.) And, to its credit, the music shows, not tells. The lyrics are political, yes, enough to make something like, say, “Raging Lung” deeply creepy (it sounds almost seductive, even, until Karin starts in on wealth and Fugazi quotes) or “Ready to Lose” steely and topical (the title’s completed by “these privileges”), but the malaise and desperation of the music says even more. Take “Without You My Life Would Be Boring,” which sounds simultaneously like Silent Shout’s “Neverland” rattling apart from vibration, an old panpipe recording and about five rabid rats, or single “Full of Fire,” a panic attack of a dance track where Karin delivers a line like “of all the guys and the signori, who will write my story” like she’s already reading her own sanitized obit, or “Networking,” which is kind of like what you’d get if you made audio from the source code of a defragmenter, or a virus posing as one. It’s a deeply uncomfortable listen, but it also makes gut-level sense. “We just have to go faster we mean breakneck we mean ‘like crazy,’” the Knife writes halfway through the manifesto (after the hara-kiri bit, before the fracking bit). At its best, Shaking the Habitual does just that.
The Knife's Shaking the Habitual is out 4/8 via Mute. Stream it at Pitchfork.