Get Red Pepper's email newsletter. Enter your email address to receive our latest articles, updates and news.
‘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.
Drawing connections between events as disparate as the ‘social murder’ of Grenfell and recent mudslides in Sierra Leone, Remi Joseph-Salisbury points to the enduring relevance of Pan African thought for anti-racist struggle today.
We work ourselves into the ground for little economic benefit. It's high time to for a change, writes Aidan Harper.
Deregulation and tax loopholes are justified by saying that they 'protect growth'. But really, they just protect the wealthy, writes James Fox
Inequality is often treated as a law of nature - but really, it's the result of conscious political choices. It's time to choose equality, writes the IPPR's Carys Roberts.
Tom Palmer, aka Agent Kingfisher, was the 'messiah' of London's squatting scene until his death last year. But who was responsible for his fate? MI5, late capitalism or simply a drug overdose? Matt Broomfield investigates.
'Docs Not Cops' write that we must resist attempts to make our NHS any less universal
Louis Mendee explains the real human costs of climate change for the global south.
From climate change to automation to demographic shifts, Mathew Lawrence explains the challenges our economy will face in the coming decade.
Fifty years after the Abortion Act, women are still dying from being denied basic services, write activists from Feminist Fightback
We need to tackle the patronising ideology that lets Tory think-tanks sneer at social tenants, writes Emma Dent Coad
Labour Party laws are being used to quash dissent
Richard Kuper writes that Labour's authorities are more concerned with suppressing pro-Palestine activism than with actually tackling antisemitism
Catalan independence is not just ‘nationalism’ – it’s a rebellion against nationalism
Ignasi Bernat and David Whyte argue that Catalonia's independence movement is driven by solidarity – and resistance to far-right Spanish nationalists
Tabloids do not represent the working class
The tabloid press claims to be an authentic voice of the working class - but it's run by and for the elites, writes Matt Thompson
As London City Airport turns 30, let’s imagine a world without it
London City Airport has faced resistance for its entire lifetime, writes Ali Tamlit – and some day soon we will win
The first world war sowed the seeds of the Russian revolution
An excerpt from 'October', China Mieville's book revisiting the story of the Russian Revolution
Academies run ‘on the basis of fear’
Wakefield City Academies Trust (WCAT) was described in a damning report as an organisation run 'on the basis of fear'. Jon Trickett MP examines an education system in crisis.
‘There is no turning back to a time when there wasn’t migration to Britain’
David Renton reviews the Migration Museum's latest exhibition
#MeToo is necessary – but I’m sick of having to prove my humanity
Women are expected to reveal personal trauma to be taken seriously, writes Eleanor Penny
Meet the digital feminists
We're building new online tools to create a new feminist community and tackle sexism wherever we find it, writes Franziska Grobke
The Marikana women’s fight for justice, five years on
Marienna Pope-Weidemann meets Sikhala Sonke, a grassroots social justice group led by the women of Marikana
Forget ‘Columbus Day’ – this is the Day of Indigenous Resistance
By Leyli Horna, Marcela Terán and Sebastián Ordonez for Wretched of the Earth
Uber and the corporate capture of e-petitions
Steve Andrews looks at a profit-making petition platform's questionable relationship with the cab company
You might be a centrist if…
What does 'centrist' mean? Tom Walker identifies the key markers to help you spot centrism in the wild
Black Journalism Fund Open Editorial Meeting in Leeds
Friday 13th October, 5pm to 7pm, meeting inside the Laidlaw Library, Leeds University
This leadership contest can transform Scottish Labour
Martyn Cook argues that with a new left-wing leader the Scottish Labour Party can make a comeback
Review: No Is Not Enough
Samir Dathi reviews No Is Not Enough: Defeating the New Shock Politics, by Naomi Klein
Building Corbyn’s Labour from the ground up: How ‘the left’ won in Hackney South
Heather Mendick has gone from phone-banker at Corbyn for Leader to Hackney Momentum organiser to secretary of her local party. Here, she shares her top tips on transforming Labour from the bottom up
Five things to know about the independence movement in Catalonia
James O'Nions looks at the underlying dynamics of the Catalan independence movement
‘This building will be a library!’ From referendum to general strike in Catalonia
Ignasi Bernat and David Whyte report from the Catalan general strike, as the movements prepare to build a new republic
Chlorine chickens are just the start: Liam Fox’s Brexit trade free-for-all
A hard-right free marketer is now in charge of our trade policy. We urgently need to develop an alternative vision, writes Nick Dearden
There is no ‘cult of Corbyn’ – this is a movement preparing for power
The pundits still don’t understand that Labour’s new energy is about ‘we’ not ‘me’, writes Hilary Wainwright