The latest album from the publicity-shy electro-pop duo The Knife contains some thrillingly unconventional songs, but some of the tracks are so unusual that they don¿t even sound like music, writes Nick Levine
New album by The Knife a dramatic departure from previous works
The Knife have never been a conventional pop group. Swedish siblings Olof Dreijer and Karin Dreijer Andersson started their electronic music project together in 1999, but didn't play live until 2006, when they released their third album. Over the years, they've been anything but media-friendly, keeping public appearances to a minimum and steadfastly avoiding awards ceremonies.
In publicity photos for that third album, Olof and Karin obscured their faces with distinctive long-beaked bird masks, and when they met journalists to promote the album, they kept the masks on. These days, they're not meeting journalists at all: every interview to promote their new album, Shaking the Habitual, is being conducted over the phone or on Skype.
The Knife's approach is wilfully enigmatic, but in today's era of gossip magazines and pop stars on Twitter, it's also refreshing. As David Bowie has shown recently, a little bit of mystery can really fuel an artist's legend, and when The Knife announced last December that they'd be releasing a new album in early 2013, fans of edgy electro-pop got very excited indeed.
This excitement, though, was tinged with a faint sense of bewilderment when The Knife revealed the album's tracklist in January. Shaking the Habitual would have an extra-lengthy running time of 96 minutes, with three tracks lasting for around 10 minutes each, and one called Old Dreams Waiting to Be Realised stretching out to 19 minutes. Some of the song titles were intriguing too: Fracking Fluid Injection and Raging Lung didn't sound like pop hits from a Justin Bieber album.
In the past, The Knife's music has been distinctive and unpredictable, but never inaccessible. Their eponymous 2001 debut was initially only released in Sweden, but 2004's brilliant follow-up Deep Cuts brought them international recognition. It was packed with strange-sounding but playful electro-pop songs, many of which were very catchy too. Later on, Swedish folk singer José Gonzáles covered the album's lead single Heartbeats, and his acoustic version became a top 10 hit in the United Kingdom after being featured on a Sony TV advertisement. The Knife used the proceeds to set up their own label, Rabid Records.
After producing a hit single called Who's That Girl for fellow Swede Robyn, The Knife returned with 2006's Silent Shout, a considerably darker album than Deep Cuts. Their trademark polyrhythms remained, dense and bouncy-sounding, but their music had become more menacing and Karin's lyrics, always quirky, had acquired a sinister edge. "They said we have a communist in the family, I had to wear a mask," she sings at the start of a song called Forest Families.
In 2009, Karin released an acclaimed solo album using the stage name Fever Ray, and supported it with live shows across Europe and the US. The same year, The Knife teamed up with two other electronic musicians, Planningtorock and Mt Sims, to write an idiosyncratic opera based on Charles Darwin's On the Origins of Species. Titled Tomorrow, In a Year, it was released on CD and download in early 2010. Karin and Olof never disappeared, but Shaking the Habitual is their first proper album as The Knife in over seven years, so expectations are incredibly high.
As its 96-minute running time suggests, The Knife's fourth LP is anything but hastily constructed. Olof and Karin began working together again in 2010 and decided to take their music in a new direction. "We both wanted to find a process where we could combine political interests and studying [with] making music. That was really important," Karin explained in a recent interview with the Australian magazine triple j.
As a result, Shaking the Habitual is influenced by books on gender studies that the siblings would read and pass on to each other. Olof and Karin say their music has always been political, but for the first time, they've brought politics to the fore. A week before its release date, the album began streaming on The Knife's website accompanied by a comic strip suggesting ways to "end extreme wealth". In recent interviews, Olof and Karin have spoken out against the Swedish monarchy and the "dangerous" idea of building society on bloodlines.
While they were making the album, the siblings were clearly digesting a wealth of challenging and radical ideas, and that's resulted in music that's challenging and radical too. Shaking the Habitual is so unlike previous The Knife albums that at one point, Olof and Karin considered releasing it under a different name. They decided against the change, Karin told Pitchfork recently, because "it's really more important to keep the name and do something completely different".
At times though, Shaking the Habitual is so different that it doesn't even sound like music. Crake and Oryx are basically just blasts of noise, and the duo produced Old Dreams Waiting to Be Realised by installing microphones in a "big boiler room" and editing down the recordings of clangs, clunks and whirrs. The result is a deeply tedious drone that lasts for a spirit-sapping 19 minutes. A track called Fracking Fluid Injection tests the patience too. For a good five minutes, it's nothing but scraping noises and a series of repetitive "ooh" and "aah" sounds. Then, around the halfway mark, an ambient fog seeps into the track, giving the scrapes and grunts a sinister edge as they continue for a further five minutes. If the aim was to replicate the ugly industriousness of hydraulic fracturing or "fracking", a controversial technique used to release gases from the earth's crust, The Knife have certainly succeeded.
Fortunately, Shaking the Habitual also contains some actual songs. Without You My Life Would Be Boring could pass for the work of a DIY Kate Bush, while Ready to Lose has the duo's usual polyrhythms and a surprisingly catchy chorus. Networking, with its skittish beats and strange gurgled vocals, is maybe what alien club music could sound like.
At times, The Knife's radical approach really pays off, though, with thrilling music that makes you think. Full of Fire's pummelling rhythms are exciting even before you realise Karin's lyrics are taking swipes at patriarchal western societies. "All the guys and the signori / Telling another false story," she hisses. Raging Lung is a 10-minute tribal rumble, but because it's got the best hooks on the album, it rewards repeat listens and the message really registers. "Where's the lottery about geography?" Karin sings, campaigning for a more even distribution of global wealth.
Most surprisingly, this intensely serious album even has the odd glimmer of humour. "Liberals giving me a nerve itch!" Karin shrieks on Full of Fire, and whether intentional or not, it's a brief moment of light relief. On the same track, Karin also references rap group Salt-N-Pepa. "Let's talk about gender, baby / Let's talk about you and me," she sings, tweaking the lyrics from their 1991 hit Let's Talk About Sex.
At the end of the month, The Knife head out on a 27-date European tour, and it's going to be fascinating to see how they perform their new music live - surely the 19-minute boiler drone won't appear on the set list? At the moment, it's difficult to tell whether this album is a kind of bloody-minded masterpiece or a brave but ill-fated experiment with some redeeming moments. For now though, one thing is certain: Shaking the Habitual really lives up to its title.
Nick Levine, based in London, is a regular contributor to The Review.