Premature Evaluation: 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.