The Knife & Shaking the Habitual: Bigger Than Europe

The Knife – Shaking the Habitual

Full of Fire, from Shaking the Habitual

“Technology” is a problematic term. Like “problematic,” it has a specific Greek etymology that, when scrutinized (a pastime of mine), reveals it to be distressingly vague in its meaning. Anything that is artful or crafted (techné) can be “technological.” So why limit this blog to the “traditional” (I really should cut back on the scare-marks in this blog) space of gadgets and apps, when there’s a whole world out there waiting to come under the “technological” (oops) lens of scrutiny? And what better to analyze than The Knife’s long-awaited triple/double album, Shaking the Habitual? Since it comes in a handy 3xLP/2xCD package (in Europe, if you’re lucky), it even bridges the divide between the digital and analog worlds (even such “worlds” even exist) while unfurling over an hour and a half of new original content.

But it’s more fascinating as an artifact from a cutting-edge (heh) band who have tapped one of the hoariest formats of music’s yesteryear (the gatefold double album) to contend with and combat, if even unintentionally (as if intent matters, but whatever), the current business models of music, which gives less reward for more work. In doing so, they use their enormous, obvious effort (a double album! seven years in the making!) to highlight, both implicitly and explicitly, Europe’s own ongoing issues with labor and shared currency.

The Knife are (this British noun/verb agreement structure seems appropriate here) an enormously accomplished band, and, really, their success could hardly have been more surprising. Aesthetically, the Swedish twins traffic in a brand of frenzied yet strangely introverted techno. At its heart is Karin Dreijer Andersson’s protean voice and the way it floats unsettlingly over the duo’s electronic stew, which seems to occupy the precise boundary at which fairytale-grade Scandinavian forest meets (obscure) nightclub: earnestly rustic, yet hipster, too.

As such, The Knife are a curious case-study for the notion of “technological progress,” since they simultaneously seem to excavate some indelibly vague set of older folk musics and notions of the album as a form (not to mention the work of Yoko Ono, whose work may now reasonably elicit a response of “She’s still alive?”) while also attracting the keen attention of the hyper-hip current music press and clubgoers alike. Other than the impending release of Daft Punk’s Random Access Memories next month, there probably won’t be a bigger event in “indie” music (i.e., covered by websites with fancy CSS) this year. And speaking of Daft Punk, Shaking the Habitual is very much The Knife’s answer to that band’s dense, intellectual Human After All.

But The Knife aren’t just aestheticians; they’re political activists, which raises the stakes that accompany each of their projects. Their Venetian masks, insistences of privacy, and reluctance to perform live are delightfully anachronistic, if one’s idea of “–chronism” is the  always-on/you have no privacy bullshit mantras of Eric Schmidt, Jeff Jarvis, and the general cult of Google (I love Google’s products – this is an Android blog, after all – but I don’t romanticize it as an organization). They’ve assaulted notions of gender via their approach to vocals, and they reprise their assault here in “Full of Fire,” which contains the Salt-N-Pepa referencing lyric “let’s talk about gender, baby / let’s talk about you and me.” And now, they’ve made a project bigger and more politically overwhelming than anything else in their repertoire, an album which uses both form and content to wedge itself uncomfortably against the political, musical, and social status quo.

Speaking of “bigger,” this is a huge album. Almost 100 minutes of new material. And to make it even harder to down than a rum-and-(Diet) Coke that was mixed, unfinished, and then rerefrigerated, it’s almost stridently idealistic in its politics. Translated, this means that it makes no compromises in terms of run times (tracks go upward of 10 minutes in length) and often broaches topics like the Euro’s slow-motion demise, as on “Stay Out There,” or the self-explanatory “Fracking Fluid Injection.” And is that PSY on the cover (probably not, but it would be topically appropriate)?

In their 1997 song “Bigger Than England,” Long Fin Killie bemoaned “waiting here for days, and still no hint of a thrill,” in the context of gently satirizing British rock music’s history of constantly changing genre labels (“let the post-punk dash left you behind…the morning dogs who protest retro rock n’ roll”). Shaking the Habitual, as its title suggests, takes a similar tack, that of a bored/skeptical onlooker who wants real change rather than the superficial changes and labels that surround them. It does this against the backdrop of major wealth redistribution thanks to the Euro and the proliferation of electronica into the awareness of average indie and pop listeners. “Bigger Than England”? Shaking the Habitual may as well be “Bigger Than Europe.”

Since many listeners now hear electronica simply by turning on any heavy rotation station, The Knife have reconfigured even their own already-abrasive musical language to be more far-out (and I mean that not simply generically, but with specific weight to the late 1960s music scene – more on that later). The stair-step synths from their 2004 masterpiece Deep Cuts and the murky atmospherics of Silent Shout anticipated the mainstreaming of indietronica and dubstep, respectively, so what’s next? Shaking the Habitual is a super-cohesive work: its songs share an homogenous sound that is shot-thru with cheap-sounding drum machines and synths. “Networking” recalls a more cynical Drexciya, while the Egyptian pipes of “Raging Lung” play like an elongated reprise of “Keep the Streets Empty for Me” from Dreijer Andersson’s Fever Ray solo album, while also mysteriously quoting Fugazi (“what a difference a little difference would make”). Nothing sounds like “the future” (and what does something that doesn’t exist yet sound like, anyway?), but I think that’s the point: the only way for The Knife to make a cutting point here is to dig into “the past,” for music presumed dead but which is actually very much still with us.

This approach is most liberally pursued on “Old Dreams Waiting to be Realized,” a 19-minute tone poem that stays true to its title by never really firing into action but instead lingering in the background, often inaudible. As the cynical exclamation on a difficult statement, it rivals The Mothers of Invention’s “The Chrome-Plated Megaphone of Destiny,” a similarly mysterious stretch of near-silence that capped their 1968 album We’re Only in it for the Money. The latter has often received epithets like “Most Lousy Song on a Great Album,” which I’m sure will be recycled in approaching “Old Dreams…” and how it fits into the otherwise fairly digestible Shaking the Habitual. Yes, for all of its difficulty, this album is a smooth listen, driven by Dreijer Andersson’s cheeky lyrics and androgynous vocals, not to mention more than a few vocal hooks, such as on “Raging Lung” and the delightfully droning “Cherry on the Top.”

The album’s surprising appeal – I’ve since spun it three more times – made me recall a recent missive from the musician Terre Thaemlitz. In the PDF liner notes to his unprecedented Soulnessless album (which I hope he won’t begrudge me quoting here) has written eloquently of how most high-profile projects inevitably surrender to prevalent norms about music:

Our obsession for career compliancy with the mechanisms of the marketplace, even when producing “culturally critical” projects, betrays an underlying aspiration to the status quo. It also exposes a crippling religious faith in our labor only gaining true audibility through dominant notions of audience and visibility. The marketplace demands that we develop products aspiring to universality and mass appeal, with no concern for the detrimental aspects of homogenization. And even in our most sincere attempts at non-compliance, we magically seem to comply.

The aforementioned homogenous sound of the album seems to indicate the same phenomenon occurring on Shaking the Habitual. But it complies in an odd way, by referencing the older double-album format (what is a “double album,” anyway, in an era in which so much music has no physical form?) and its various distinctive traits like very long tracks and short, palate-cleansing interludes, seen here in the Margaret Atwood-referencing “Oryx” and “Crake” songs, both of which clock in at under a minute. This plays more like The White Album, or one of The Mothers Of Invention’s more far-strung 1960s works (the double-disc Uncle Meat, for example) than any more recent double-album. In other words, The Knife are well-versed in the particular vocabulary of the album, and they have delivered a Big Statement of sorts by electing to release such a long-form work in an era defined by single-song downloads and streaming.

Or have they? Thaemlitz, in that same essay, also remarks:

The album, as a compositional formation derived from those media durations, is dead in the wake of infinite single-track downloads. While there is a desire to celebrate audio recording’s liberation from the arbitrary time restrictions of archaic media formats, technological and corporately devised limitations of the MP3 format make any such celebration premature. Throughout the CD era, record labels have come to demand audio producers make projects that fill the longer digital media capacities. So much so that consumers now feel disappointment and even trickery when purchasing shorter albums. Yet all the while labels are paying lower advances and royalties. ”

Paradoxically, the era of seemingly short attention spans and discrete individual tracks has also given rise to huge, never-ending albums, keeping the old format in rather rude health. The long, overstuffed Shaking the Habitual, as such, is an amazingly poignant work for 2013, and this poignancy makes its venom all the more potent. It appears to lash out against environmental abuse and the “short century” caused by the Euro crisis. It’s a work that has the residue of recent economic crises all over it, as evinced by the “End Extreme Wealth” mantra on the vinyl edition’s cover.

But it makes an even more subtle point simply by way it marries seemingly archaic form with a consistent knack for pop. Even Pitchfork, in reviewing the pair’s contributions to the Tomorrow, in a Year opera, said that The Knife have always been a pop band at heart. And it’s this pop sensibility that reveals the band seemingly grappling with how to make a difficult Big Statement (on politics, on art) while subconsciously “complying” (to use Thaemlitz’s terminology) with pop norms in a way that only they can. In 2004, on “Listen Now,” they declared: “We seek and we will find/Reason to stay alive/The price has never been this low.” In 2013, amidst shrinking musical royalties and increasing inequality in Europe and the West, they have made good on that promise, staying alive thru the sheer weight and power of Shaking the Habitual.

-The ScreenGrab Team

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