The Knife - Shaking The Habitual

On “Raging Lung,” a little more than halfway through the Knife’s gargantuan new album Shaking The Habitual, a few familiar words show up: “What a difference, what a difference a little difference would make.” Those words are familiar because Guy Picciotto groaned them on Fugazi’s “Blueprint,” a track from Repeater, my favorite album ever. With apologies to the little kid rocking the bootleg T-shirt in the Matthew McConaughey arthouse movie Mud, this is the most unexpected Fugazi reference I’ve come across lately. It’s unexpected because the Knife have spent an entire career building a completely opaque wall of mystique around themselves, never letting us see their faces or know their feelings. They seem to exist completely in an unknowable gothworld where faces melt and computer-whirrs cut the air, where a dense sensation of menace hangs over every moment. The idea of a teenage Karin Dreijer Andersson venturing into a Stockholm record shop to buy a Fugazi album is not the sort of thing that would’ve ever crossed my mind. But with Shaking The Habitual, the Knife have made their leftist political album, and Fugazi serve as patron saints for half the musicians making leftist political albums in the past couple of decades. Shaking The Habitual comes equipped with all sorts of data, from the graphics that flash at you on the Pitchfork stream to the grad-school manifesto the band released to the garish alt-weekly cartoon on the group’s own website, about how they want to end gender inequality and extreme wealth. And while I don’t imagine Shaking The Habitual will instigate any rich folks to abandon their gains for the common good, the album does strike at least one blow for the Knife’s cause: It will never, ever make anyone extremely wealthy.

Once upon a time, the Knife made pop music. It was stretch-out, fucked-around, radically taken-apart pop music, but it was pop music all the same. “Heartbeats,” the single that put the duo on the map, charted in a couple of countries, and then it charted again, higher, when José González covered it. Silent Shout, the band’s 2006 album, gasped and snarled and shuddered with a morbid grace, but the music was still pleasant enough that it showed up in the background on Ugly Betty. The music on Shaking The Habitual is not, by any stretch of the imagination, pop music. It’s not pleasant. It’s stressed-out, disoriented, evil, angry art music. It’s music built to push away, not to pull in. Shaking The Habitual might be the group’s first proper album since Silent Shout, but it’s closer in spirit to Tomorrow, In A Year, the impenetrable experimental opera that they released in 2010. It’s the moment the group goes long, stretching out toothsome vamps for 10 minutes at a time, then throwing two-minute bursts of exposed-gum-nerve glitch-noise in between them, and then dropping a massive 20-minute block of ambient drone in the middle of everything, as if to make it even unfriendlier. But for all its distancing tricks, Shaking The Habitual is still a powerfully compelling slab of music. If it represents the Knife’s best efforts to make something unlistenable, it’s not enough.

Because even if the band has largely decided not to make songs or hooks or riffs this time around, they’re still amazing at making atmosphere, at bending and melting the air around you. The album’s best moments have a stark and itchy rhythmic sensibility, one which doesn’t really work as dance music but which pulls your brain off into infinity the way some of the best dance music does. On “Stay Out Here,” Karin brings in Light Asylum’s Shannon Funchess and visual artist Emily Roysdon to wail along here, the three of them turning into a witches’-chorus version of the standard belt-it-out house-music diva. On “Wrap Your Arms Around Me,” she crows pleas of devotion over vast, wondrous synth-tones that remind me of the Ligeti music we hear when humans encounter the monoliths in 2001. “Without You My Life Would Be Boring” is the closest thing to a straight-up pop song here, but it wraps its considerable hook around skittering drums and keyboards that sound like mice wriggling in your brain. It’s all mood music of a very particular kind, mood music for when you’re in an angry and uncomfortable and misanthropic state of mind. And if you can find that state of mind, it’s pretty amazing.

Like Swans’ similarly huge and all-consuming The Seer, Shaking The Habitual isn’t an album that you can consume piecemeal; it’s an album that demands that you get in its level. You can’t stream a couple of songs on your laptop while you’re working and decide if you like it or not. You need to dim lights, close windows, turn off your phone, give into the experience. Approached from the wrong angle, a track like the 19-minute ambient drone odyssey “Old Dreams Waiting To Be Realized” is a fuck-you endurance test. But if you let the track sink in and fuck with your mind, it works like a tension-heightening drug, the way so much of the rest of the album does (though I’m still not sure what it’s doing in the exact center of the fucking thing). The microtonal pain-sculpture “Fracking Fluid Injection” is even harder to get through, but even that has the same basic effect. This is music for long night-time headphones walks, music for imagining every building around you burning. It has none of the immediate pleasures of Silent Shout or Karin’s Fever Ray album, but its immediate displeasures are potent things. As such, the album is one that resists the entire idea of the Premature Evaluation; it’s too huge and dense to get your head around within a day or two. But after just a day or two, I can tell you that it’s strong music, music that absolutely attains its goal of intensifying your stress. Time will tell if it’s anything more than that, but that itself is plenty.

Shaking The Habitual is out 4/9 on Mute.

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Comments (28)
  1. Between this and the Flaming Lips album I think I’m ready to slit my wrists.

  2. 20 minute ambient drone? Take that, Boehner.

  3. This article about the new record by The Knife begins with you talking about how clever you are in rooting out Fugazi references, and how you think this Fugazi reference is more unexpected than another recent Fugazi reference you noticed. I don’t care about you.

  4. I’m not trying to be a massive pedant, but I think Karin mentioned that she liked Fugazi while doing interviews to promote Fever Ray.

  5. I’ve been reading multiple reviews and they basically say the same thing which is awesome. This album is an album it will take time to see it’s importance. It’s exciting as this is either the next Velvet Underground & Nico (a giant statement of art that took decades to flourish) or the next Trout Mask Replica (Gripping and exciting upon release as it’s an understated masterpiece, but loss of importance canonically and rarely listened to anymore.) Either way it’s fucking good and exciting.

  6. Powerful music

  7. Is it weird i don’t find this to be straining and painful music? Maybe the first couple times I listened to it I was a bit shocked, but after every listen I can sort of deflower and absorb it more and more. “Without You My Life Would Be Boring”, “Stay Out Here”, “A Tooth for an Eye”…I can jam the hell out to these songs in my head. The album is so rhythmically complex and the bizarre sounds are layered in such intricate, interesting ways, it’s a very enjoyable listen for me now.
    Now those ambient tracks… they definitely make my public transportation ventures and homework doing a lot more interesting lol

    • durr replace my term “deflower” with “decode”..heh

    • If you listen to very left-field music, It probably doesn’t seem tooo weird. BUT I think you’d have to be living under a rock to not see how it can be very polarizing. I mean musically it’s very different from their previous album. It’s a bit like how serialism and atonality are polarizing.

      • I can definitely see how it would be polarizing, for sure…especially considering how much their fan base has expanded in recent years. However I think that in the right frame of mind, as stated in the evaluation here, it’s not nearly as cringeworthy as people seem to be letting on (except Fracking Fluid Injection is definitely a rough one, I’ll give you that). Once you get past the initial shock of how different it sounds, it becomes more rewarding with every listen. As everyone seems to have made clear: it may take time. I just hope the people listening to it out there give it a chance and not just brush it off as abrasive conceptual art.

  8. it reminded me of the first time i heard kid a…i felt stoned without the drugs…i still feel stoned from this one…it sounds like the end of the world…crazy weird stuff…i dig more each time i hear it

  9. Forget Fugazi, they obviously took a whole lot of inspiration from Minor Threat on this album. Namely: FILLER. Lots and lots of it.

  10. This record exists in the same sphere as the last few Scott Walker records. Love it or hate it, they are pushing the art of music somewhere new.

  11. If you don’t follow The Knife closely then I can see why this album is somewhat surprising. Definitely polarizing either way, but if you’ve been listening to what Karin & Olof have been putting out since Silent Shout (Tomorrow, In A Year, Fever Ray, Oni Ayhun) its not really that much a of stylistic shock. Some of it is about as oddball as it gets but when you are famous for pushing the limits of music I feel like you’re bound for a misstep or two. Outside of Fracking Fluid and Old Dreams I think it holds up with anything else they’ve done, and I can’t wait to see what they do with it live.

    • I don’t see how you can criticize Old Dreams? Every review I’ve read hasn’t and there’s a reason why. It’s brilliant dark ambient…I can understand if you don’t like ambient but you can’t criticise it because of that because your not meeting it on it’s own terms. It’s like calling a heavy metal song bad when you don’t listen to heavy metal.

      As for Fracking Fluid…that’s a give or take…you can see it has a brilliant concept of Hydraulic Fracking or just unnecessary. Eh.

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