‘What we do is political,‘ says Karin Dreijer Andersson, one half of Swedish electronica pioneers The Knife, in the eerie, David Lynch-esque promotional video accompanying their new album Shaking the Habitual. ‘That should be impossible to misunderstand,’ continues Olof Dreijer, her brother and the other half of the duo. Yet on first listen to the hour and a half long Shaking the Habitual I was, to be honest, slightly bewildered.
Their first proper release since 2006’s Silent Shout, Shaking the Habitual takes that album’s uniquely dark brand of house music (‘haunted house’, as one critic described it) and ups the ante. ‘Full of Fire’, the album’s lead single, is nine minutes of tempo shifting, hellish techno, while ‘Without You My Life Would Be Boring’, with its Bhangra-like rhythms and split flute notes, is like the best backing track Timbaland never produced. Alongside the more conventional ‘songs’ are a handful of longish instrumental pieces, most notably ‘Old Dreams Waiting to be Realised’, a 20-minute ambient soundscape, apparently the result of recording hours of a PA feed-backing in an empty boiler room. While the album’s abrasiveness has been overstated by some critics – the music is hard to tear your ears away from in its visceral muscularity – Shaking the Habitual is still far from an easy listen.
In recent interviews The Knife have had plenty to say about everything from environmentalism to their own privileged position as white, middle-class Swedes. Press photos for the album feature Dreijer and Andersson in matching gender-neutral shell suit and wig costumes, making it impossible to tell them apart. Indeed, both members’ extensive reading in gender and feminist theory (Dreijer completed his degree in the gender studies department at Stockholm University), and their distaste for the corporate and hierarchical structures of the music industry specifically and modern society in general, has been much reported. The album itself ships with a satirical zine critiquing extreme wealth.
Yet, stripped of context, Shaking the Habitual’s message seems at first, if not exactly lost, then hardly clear. Yes, a track entitled ‘Fracking Fluid Injection’ made up of nine minutes of atonal nightmarish drones is hardly a subtle statement. But throughout the album, Andersson’s voice sits low in the mix, and it is often too distorted or pitch shifted to make out more than the odd phrase.
A look at the lyric sheet reveals the occasional political slogan. ‘Liberals giving me a nerve pinch,’ Andersson growls towards the end of ‘Full of Fire’. But the words are, by and large, too non-sequitur to be meaningful. Dreijer recently claimed that the songs are inspired by 1970s protest songs from their childhood, but ‘a handful of elf pee, that’s my soul, spray it all over, fill the bowl’ is a lot harder to parse as a cogent statement than ‘War! Huh! What it is good for? Absolutely nothing!’
As The Knife admit, it would have been far easier to get their point across if they’d smuggled subversive lyrics into an album full of four-minute pop songs. What they are trying to do with Shaking the Habitual is more radical.
This is instead an album characterised by questions and the blurring of boundaries: questions about what is expected of popular musicians, about the function and form of the pop song, and about the authenticity of sound. Both members have spoken of their desire to blur the boundaries between electronic and acoustic instrumentation and of wanting to play around with time, challenging listeners’ expectations about how long a song should be.
As the album title asserts, The Knife want to shake us out of our habits, to question the common assumptions that political music must always be shouty punk, or sung earnestly over an acoustic guitar. ‘The record poses the question: what can a protest song be today?’ Dreijer argued recently. By Shaking the Habitual, by challenging our firmly held beliefs about popular music and sound, The Knife hope we are also moved to challenge our beliefs more widely, about gender, sex and the structure of society. The album’s political message, then, is carried not only through content – lyrics, themes or songs – but also through form in the structure and aesthetics of the music itself.
Both Dreijer and Andersson have recently given interviews in which they have lauded music’s transformative potential and its capacity as a tool to create popular movements. In an era when the majority of alternative music is characterised by an irony-laced anti-politics, The Knife’s attempt at something so ambitious lays down a refreshing original challenge.
Hilary Wainwright argues against reclaiming populism for the left and for a leadership that supports people’s capacity for self-government
It may seem as though these apps are working for us, but we are also working for the apps, writes Kurt Iveson
It's over 100 years ago that domestic workers began to organise to demand the same rights as other workers. Yet with LSE cleaners on strike this week, historian Laura Schwartz asks: how much has really changed?
Omar Barghouti asks whether Donald Trump, in his recent break with America’s long-standing support for the two-state solution, has unwittingly revived the debate about the plausibility, indeed the necessity, of a single, democratic state in historic Palestine?
Glenn Greenwald was interviewed by Amandla Thomas-Johnson over the phone from Brazil. Here is what he had to say on the War on Terror, Trump, and the 'special relationship'
In 1972 David Widgery wrote about the bitter intensity of love in capitalism
Andrew Dolan on how the left must match the anti-establishment rhetoric of the right, but with a different politics
Emma Snaith speaks with directors Emer Mary Morris and Nina Scott about the power of theatre to encourage community resistance to estate demolitions.
In the first of a series of interviews with migrants' rights and racial justice activists from the US, Marienna Pope-Weidemann speaks to Peter Pedemonti, co-founder and director of the New Sanctuary Movement in Philadelphia
Photos from The World Transformed festival in Liverpool, by David Walters
Red Pepper’s race section: open editorial meeting 19 April
On April 19th, we’ll be holding the second of Red Pepper’s Race Section Open Editorial Meetings.
Changing our attitude to Climate Change
Paul Allen of the Centre for Alternative Technology spells out what we need to do to break through the inaction over climate change
Introducing Trump’s Inner Circle
Donald Trump’s key allies are as alarming as the man himself
Secrets and spies of Scotland Yard
A new Espionage Act threatens whistleblowers and journalists, writes Sarah Kavanagh
#AndABlackWomanAtThat – part II: a discussion of power and privilege
In the second article of a three-part series, Sheri Carr reflects on the silencing of black women and the flaws in safe spaces
How progressive is the ‘progressive alliance’?
We need an anti-austerity alliance, not a vaguely progressive alliance, argues Michael Calderbank
The YPJ: Fighting Isis on the frontline
Rahila Gupta talks to Kimmie Taylor about life on the frontline in Rojava
Joint statement on George Osborne’s appointment to the Evening Standard
'We have come together to denounce this brazen conflict of interest and to champion the growing need for independent, truthful and representative media'
Paul O’Connell and Michael Calderbank consider the conditions that led to the Brexit vote, and how the left in Britain should respond
On the right side of history: an interview with Mijente
Marienna Pope-Weidemann speaks to Reyna Wences, co-founder of Mijente, a radical Latinx and Chincanx organising network
Disrupting the City of London Corporation elections
The City of London Corporation is one of the most secretive and least understood institutions in the world, writes Luke Walter
#AndABlackWomanAtThat: a discussion of power and privilege
In the first article of a three-part series, Sheri Carr reflects on the oppression of her early life and how we must fight it, even in our own movement
Corbyn understands the needs of our communities
Ian Hodson reflects on the Copeland by-election and explains why Corbyn has the full support of The Bakers Food and Allied Workers Union
Red Pepper’s race section: open editorial meeting 15 March
On 15 March, we’ll be holding the first of Red Pepper’s Race Section open editorial meetings.
Social Workers Without Borders
Jenny Nelson speaks to Lauren Wroe about a group combining activism and social work with refugees
Growing up married
Laura Nicholson interviews Dr Eylem Atakav about her new film, Growing Up Married, which tells the stories of Turkey’s child brides
The Migrant Connections Festival: solidarity needs meaningful relationships
On March 4 & 5 Bethnal Green will host a migrant-led festival fostering community and solidarity for people of all backgrounds, writes Sohail Jannesari
Reclaiming Holloway Homes
The government is closing old, inner-city jails. Rebecca Roberts looks at what happens next
Intensification of state violence in the Kurdish provinces of Turkey
Oppression increases in the run up to Turkey’s constitutional referendum, writes Mehmet Ugur from Academics for Peace
Pass the domestic violence bill
Emma Snaith reports on the significance of the new anti-domestic violence bill
Report from the second Citizen’s Assembly of Podemos
Sol Trumbo Vila says the mandate from the Podemos Assembly is to go forwards in unity and with humility
Protect our public lands
Last summer Indigenous people travelled thousands of miles around the USA to tell their stories and build a movement. Julie Maldonado reports
From the frontlines
Red Pepper’s new race editor, Ashish Ghadiali, introduces a new space for black and minority progressive voices
How can we make the left sexy?
Jenny Nelson reports on a session at The World Transformed
In pictures: designing for change
Sana Iqbal, the designer behind the identity of The World Transformed festival and the accompanying cover of Red Pepper, talks about the importance of good design
Angry about the #MuslimBan? Here are 5 things to do
As well as protesting against Trump we have a lot of work to get on with here in the UK. Here's a list started by Platform
Who owns our land?
Guy Shrubsole gives some tips for finding out
Don’t delay – ditch coal
Take action this month with the Coal Action Network. By Anne Harris
Utopia: Work less play more
A shorter working week would benefit everyone, writes Madeleine Ellis-Petersen
Mum’s Colombian mine protest comes to London
Anne Harris reports on one woman’s fight against a multinational coal giant