‘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.