- SPIN Rating:9 of 10
The run-up to the Knife's new album has been treated like some vast, baffling performance-art piece. But by 2013 roll-out standards, it's actually been pretty straightforward, with videos, press releases, and the inevitable leak or two. Sure, a text that preceded Shaking the Habitual took the form of a kinda-sorta cryptic (but hardly all that out-there) "manifesto" of sorts, but even a cursory read lays out the group's agenda: They're switching things up, they like dance clubs and homemade instruments and long walks on the beach, and, oh yeah, destroy the patriarchy. Which didn't stop many outlets from going all slack-jawed over the supposed zaniness of the text, entitled "Some Feeling in the Bellies of the Tankers Who Pass Us Making Sad Manic Bongs Like Drums"; some wag even submitted it for scrutiny over at Rap Genius.
In a perverse way, that suits the Knife's project: They've said that community and collective action were motivating forces behind their fourth album. (Never mind the C-minus quality of those crowd-sourced CliffsNotes, not to mention the fact that the mansplaining Rap Genius is antithetical to the duo's agenda.) Perhaps inspired by the Occupy movement — the "Full of Fire" video features a staged political demonstration that turns into a lesbian love story — Karin Dreijer-Andersson and Olof Dreijer have set aside their masks in favor of the empowering anonymity of the crowd, taking on new collaborators whose input is crucial to the way their music makes meaning. New York writer Jess Arndt was responsible for their introductory text, which speaks in an open-ended "we"; the feminist filmmakers Roxy Farhat, Kakan Hermansson, and Marit Östberg directed the videos for "A Tooth for an Eye" and "Full of Fire." The Swedish brother-sister duo have even opened up their hermetic sound-world to musical collaborators, with Light Asylum's Shannon Funchess and the multi-disciplinary artist Emily Roysdon both appearing on "Stay Out Here," an electrifying tribal stomp full of ghoulish hissing and hollering that serves as the album's libidinal, fight-or-flight crux.
With their last album, 2010's Tomorrow, in a Year — an opera about Darwin's Origin of the Species, recorded with Mt. Sims and Planningtorock — the Knife demonstrated their desire to think big; unfortunately, they also fell into the trap of thinking that ambitious, "difficult" music shouldn't be very fun to listen to. So it's a huge relief to see them diving back into the seas of jouissance with Habitual. From the very first flicker of cymbals and finger snaps that opens the album, they tap into an electroacoustic universe whose glassy, metallic timbres ripple across the flesh, and whose rubbery tones undulate deep in the gut. They've never sounded more in tune with the materiality of sound or the sonorousness of the physical world.
In a recent interview, Karin and Olof described putting contact mics on household objects in the pursuit of a kind of sonic alchemy, "finding sounds in which the bedspring sounds like a voice or a voice sounds like a bedspring." Consequently, this album thrums with the chatter of animated objects: There are squeaking doors and duck calls and bass like a flash-frozen foghorn, plus hammered harpsichords and bumblebees and blackened Sunn O))) drones. Quick-trilling woodblock beats transmogrify into flutes, and whales and sea lions groan in time with catgut scraped across metal.
They haven't entirely let go of their fascination with steel drums and vaguely Eastern modalities, but the Knife's sense of geography has grown more fantastical. Whereas 2006 breakout Silent Shout sent trance motifs foraging for new worlds, now they're colonizing dance floors with sounds pulled from the margins of the imagination. A frenetic techno pulse runs throughout Habitual, but while most of the dance-music world is mad about MDMA, they're more interested in DNA, in the way that electro-stimulus can work its mutating magic at the cellular level, resequencing genes according to the logic of an undulating oonce-oonce beat. (From the text: "At 5 a.m. that warehouse beat is coming up like sour steam. All over the dance floor we're asking: Can this DNA turn into something else?")
In fact, the most tightly wound songs here — "Full of Fire," "A Tooth for an Eye," "Without You My Life Would Be Nothing," "Networking," and "Stay Out Here" — are an extension of the intricate, opalescent techno that Olof has spent the past few years producing under his Oni Ayhun alias. They're full of jellied timbres and high-frequency filigree and shape-shifting polyrhythms, joining the martial TR-909s, industrial clang, and striated white noise of Berghain residents like Ben Klock with rainforest ceremonies and circuit-bent exorcisms. "A Tooth for an Eye" morphs almost imperceptibly from a snaky 6/8 rhythm to a four-to-the-floor stomp; "Stay Out Here" rolls out like a machine raga, as the freestyling singers channel Joan La Barbara over endlessly unspooling rhythms.
"Stay Out Here" shows how far the Knife have come from early highlights like their career-making "Heartbeats": It just goes on and on, nearly 11 minutes of machine sizzle and collective bloodletting that has more in common with outer-limits dance music's psychedelic jam sessions than traditional pop structures. That willingness to test formulas extends to the shape of Habitual itself. It's 97 minutes long, six of its 13 songs approaching or exceeding the nine-minute mark, the whole thing shuttling back and forth unpredictably between high-energy rave-ups and droning dirges. The album's flow is so counter-intuitive that you have to assume they planned it that way. It peaks towards the end with the rousing "Stay Out Here," after which the nine-minute "Fracking Fluid Injection" just hangs there, creaking like a rusty Calder mobile; "Ready to Lose" closes the record on a forlorn, anti-climactic note, with Karin "thinking about losing" and "sucking the marrow," as the duo slinks off into the forest like an animal licking its wounds.
Lyrically, the artist otherwise known as Fever Ray seems intent upon balancing primal expression with dully quotidian imagery — has any other pop musician ever mentioned the exchange rate of the Euro in a song? "Liberals giving me a nerve itch," she sings on "Full of Fire"; elsewhere, she compares her soul to "a handful of elf pee," declaring, "The piss is territorial." "Wrap Your Arms Around Me" sounds, uncharacteristically enough, like a love song, playacting domesticity with couplets like "Wrap your arms around me / Tell me all those things you haven't told me." But Karin shatters the romantic fantasy with lines that might be a botched Google translation of 50 Shades of Grey: "Come, normalize / Then I got the urge for penetration."
The most audacious move here, though, is epic centerpiece "Old Dreams Waiting to Be Realized." Actually, scratch "epic," because epics have monsters and heroes and sea battles, whereas this is a 19-minute stretch of droning musique concrète. Maybe scratch "centerpiece," too: Far from a flower arrangement, this is more like a tank full of writhing eels plunked smack dab in the middle of Habitual's crowded banquet table. The track is reminiscent of 1970s tape music by fellow Swedes Folke Rabe and Åke Hodell — both of whom, perhaps not coincidentally, combined avant-garde composition with progressive politics. Nearly one-fifth of the project's total running time is taken up with this strange, static meditation, which cleaves the record in two (on the double-CD version of the album, it closes the first disc) and thoroughly subverts its energy, replacing heartbeats with pitched-down tinnitus whine.
For listeners looking for quick fixes, that all might be a stumbling block, but "Old Dreams" is essential to the way the Knife incorporate their politics into the fabric of the music itself, rather than just using beats and lyrics as didactic tools. "We have a bellyache, a big stink, a major grouse or two with manufactured knowledge," they complain in the introductory text. "But how do you build an album about not knowing?" The answer is right here: By listening harder and opening up spaces that require you do the same. They may find themselves headlining Primavera Sound festival, but that's not going to stop them from making tracks that drown out the noise of indie stardom and Internet chatter with the hissing of summer lawns and the creaking of polar ice melt. Humming like a life-support machine, "Old Dreams" anchors Shaking the Habitual: Its nagging existential dread is precisely what fuels the Knife's 5 a.m. club communion, in which bodies dissolve into sound, answers unravel in time with the beat, and not knowing feels like the most exhilarating thing on earth.