The Knife: Shaking the Habitual

Hackles are bound to prick up the moment a band tries to make “important music.” That phrase usually conjures visions of ham-fisted political lyrics, overblown earnestness and artless pretension. Nonetheless, an even more insidious thought can often give rise to all of those images: this group is taking a position that might be contrary to some of my own views.

Artists have a narrow edge to walk when engaging explicitly political subject matter. Instead of calling such music “political” — what music is not at least unconsciously political? — I would prefer to call it “activist.” The Knife’s new album, “Shaking the Habitual,” lays bare its activism for all to see.

Its demeanor is ferocious, its music abrasive and its lyrics, while cryptic, are unmistakably pushing the listener outside the music and into the world. The Knife has always harbored a certain wildness, but here they let it have a freer reign, clawing at the fabric of their extended songs (six of the thirteen tracks run over eight minutes) and providing a spontaneity only partially evident on their earlier work.

Olof Dreijer and Karin Dreijer Andersson, the Swedish brother and sister duo behind The Knife, came into the recording process with a mission in mind, and their use of chaos, paradoxically, is surgically deliberate. Armed with extensive reading that Karin, in an interview with Catch Fire, said included “Mohanty’s ‘Feminism Without Borders’, also Franz Fanon, Judith Butler, Foucault, Spivak and some of Wendy Brown.”

Ideas about feminist activism, intersectionality, and other critical theory therefore underly much of the politics on the album. The first song offers a blistering critique of conservative politics: “Under the Sun /Look what we have got / And those who haven’t: bad luck.” The music arms itself, invoking dance as a weapon and accusing its unnamed enemies of rewriting history to suit their own purposes. “Shaking the Habitual” is designed to do just what its title implies: inject some instability into the artifice of modern society, whose oppression of marginalized groups depends on false certainties.

Perhaps mirroring its overriding concern with human bodies and the politics of identity, the duo has opted for a mixture of organic and electronic instrumentation. The trouble on most of the songs is attempting to discern which is which. On the second track, “Full of Fire,” what sound like programmed beats clash against otherworldly noises, synthetic bass, and Karin Dreijer Andersson’s often distorted vocals.

Everything is tipping off balance while Andersson sings “Of all the guys and the signori/Who will write my story/Get the picture, they get glory/Who looks after my story?” In the album’s moments of clarity, when the hurricane of sound quiets and the words pierce through clearly, the effect can be touching, even moving.

A major chunk of the album’s running time is taken up by instrumentals. “Old Dreams Waiting To Be Realized,” an aching, lurching twenty minutes of ambient drones recorded in a boiler room, resembles a kind of nightmare played in slow motion. “Oryx” and “Crake” are harsh, wordless homages to Margaret Atwood’s work, and “Fracking Fluid Injection” opens up into a kind of glacial beauty, icy but somehow healing to witness. It, along with the beautifully passionate “Wrap Your Arms Around Me” bring The Knife’s humanity to the fore, allowing us to see a modicum of hope emerge.

The question could well be asked whether a group with such a pointed message should be cloaking it in music this challenging and esoteric. Similar complaints were lodged at Radiohead when they abdicated their status as the Biggest Band in the World to pursue more radically subversive sounds. It could well be that smuggling queer theory into a populist dance track may reach a wider audience than putting the same message in a ten-minute electro-acoustic freakout.

That said, I believe this approach offers more impact, drawing The Knife’s considerable audience deeper and more critically into a new perspective. It might not always work, but the alignment of the activist and the artistic on “Shaking the Habitual” meshes remarkably well. It’s a fraught journey, but one well worth undertaking.