The Knife: Shaking the Habitual

the knife
Rabid Records/Courtesy

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Following seven years of relative dormancy, the Knife’s Karin Dreijer Andersson and Olof Dreijer have released Shaking the Habitual, an explicitly political record that forces listeners to adapt to its uncompromising, unconventional and seemingly inaccessible terms. The dense, sprawling work, with its politicized lyrics, industrial sounds and chilling ambience, is a notable departure from the band’s early work and also represents a significant shift in the Knife’s identity as a band.

Since 1999, the siblings have maintained a uniquely mysterious, rigidly controlled image in which they carefully avoid coming across as human in any way. In their rare live performances and public appearances, they conceal their faces behind a screen or with disturbing bird masks and face paint. In addition to hiding their faces, the masks function to obscure their gender, part of an ongoing interrogation of gender throughout their career. Since their conception, the band has warped and pitched down Andersson’s vocals to sound androgynous and almost post-human. Additionally, the early press photos for Shaking the Habitual showed the siblings from behind wearing long wigs, making it impossible to distinguish their gender.

When asked about their disguises, Andersson told The Guardian, “It’s always fun to try out different roles. I would like to quote (gender theorist) Judith Butler, who says, ‘We are always in drag.’ That has to do with the idea of authenticity: is there really any time when you are your true self? I would say that we’re always playing a role.”

The idea of roleplaying is expounded on in “A Cherry on Top,” in which Andersson sings of luxury in a heavily manipulated voice: “Strawberry, melon, cherry on top (…) The Haga Castle evening cream.” Dreijer explained to Pitchfork: “We’ve been talking about the importance of making your privileges transparent in order to be able to say something political.” Here, Andersson’s performance functions as a form of resistance, inhabiting the voice of the privileged to fiercely rail against extreme wealth. The siblings aim to bring cultural constructs to crisis by exposing their limits, shortcomings and blind spots.

The exploration of gender is a fundamental aspect of Shaking the Habitual. The feminist and queer theory Dreijer and Andersson have been studying in the years since Silent Shout inform everything from their lyrics and album artwork to their videos, which are directed by queer feminist porn director Marit Ostberg and gender activists Roxy Farhat and Kakan Hermansson. The lead single “Full of Fire” sets the tone as its outro paraphrases Salt-N-Pepa: “Let’s talk about gender baby / Let’s talk about you and me.” Experimental feminist writers Jeanette Winterson (whose book “The Passion” provides the refrain for “A Tooth for an Eye”) and Margaret Atwood (who is referenced in the interludes “Oryx” and “Crake”) also have a visible influence throughout.

The feminism of Shaking the Habitual is especially striking in the modern, male-dominated world of electronic music. It is refreshing to see The Knife breaking the boundaries of electronic music amid the increasing popularity of superstar “EDM” DJs such as Skrillex, Aviici and Tiesto among raving MDMA-fueled frat bros, demonstrating that it is still possible to create intelligent electronic music.

Andersson and Dreijer recognize that in order to convey their political statement, their music must embody the same passion as the lyrics, so they experiment with form and composition to challenge conventions “on a structural level rather than a psychological level.” They achieve this by incorporating their progressive politics into the very structure of the music, including pieces such as “Old Dreams Waiting to be Realized,” a track consisting of 19 minutes of found-sound drones. These drone pieces act as intermissions, opening up empty spaces that require the listener to do the same. By locating a space of ambivalence, listeners can reflect on and acknowledge the intersections of power and the interactions between gender, race, sexuality and class.

Shaking the Habitual sounds as if it is immediately off-putting to listeners: It is 98 minutes long, six of its 13 songs exceed eight minutes and two of them are long drone pieces. However, it turns out that many of the things that seem inaccessible in theory are in reality those that hold the album together. The record moves fluidly from the electro-punk aggression of “A Tooth for an Eye” to the dissonant drone of “Old Dreams” to the sinister pop of “Raging Lung” and finally to the nightmarish deconstructed noise of “Fracking Fluid Injection.” The arresting combination of creaking homemade noises, pop sounds and progressive politics make for a seamless and staggeringly impressive work and recommend Shaking the Habitual as a contender for 2013’s best record.

Contact Meadhbh McGrath at [email protected].