Silent Shout Turns 10
It doesn’t take a lot to see that the Knife’s 2003 single “Heartbeats” served as the blueprint for a lot of modern pop music. That’s not to say that the sort of electronic churn that synthesized on Deep Cuts — the sibling duo’s second album, on which “Heartbeats” was featured — hadn’t been in development for decades (see Massive Attack, New Order, Depeche Mode, Björk, Suicide, Portishead) but the Knife crafted this big, vivid, perfect pop song that still sounded like it had the teeth to rip your guts out. “Heartbeats” was never a hit outside of certain circles, and its brief blip of cultural consciousness came by way of a cover in a popular commercial that aired only shortly before the Knife’s third album, Silent Shout, was released 10 years ago today in Sweden, but I’d like to think that the duo knew exactly what kind of song they had wrought, even if the rest of the world took a while to catch on. But their influence would eventually bear out, as “Heartbeats”‘ blunt-edged, detached melancholia slowly trickled its way into pop — both indie-prefixed and mainstream — for years to come.
After a potentially career-defining single like “Heartbeats,” many electronic artists less talented than the Knife would have called it quits, either relegating themselves to the studio as faceless producers on potential mega-hits or putting out facsimiles of it that would never measure up. But Karin Dreijer Andersson and Olof Dreijer are true auteurs, and when it came time to follow up the satisfyingly out-of-step pop songs on Deep Cuts, they turned inward, backing off the precipice of accessibility to make Silent Shout, a haunting and beguiling listen that only feels more alien, timeless, and urgent the further removed we get from it.
Taking their foot off the gas means that Silent Shout ended up a more meditative, atmospheric record when compared to its predecessor; it nudges, doesn’t push. Deep Cuts is brash and beats you over the head with the duo’s ideals; Silent Shout is more sly about it and, ultimately, more effective. It’s closer to the obtuse pop of the Swedish duo’s self-titled debut, but it also forges its own path ahead into the bleak. Breaking it down piece-by-piece, it’s a remarkably simple and sparse album. They turned to analog recording after using primarily free software for Deep Cuts, and you can hear the switch-off in how tired and aggravated the album sounds. It’s lugubrious, it doesn’t come easy — nothing approaches the levity or mile-a-minute pinpricks of previous highlights like “Girls’ Night Out” or “You Take My Breath Away.” There’s rarely more than two or three synths going off at once on Silent Shout, plus the ever-persistent beat of the drum machine. In a lot of ways, the album is a product of its utilitarian environment. It’s cold and calculating, clinical and antiseptic. It’s the sound of identical metal cells and industrial design, IKEA desks measured down to the millimeter and slotted sturdily by consumers into place. And even though the Knife were rebelling against that kind of conformity, they couldn’t help but sound like they were born of it.
When the Knife truly blew up with Silent Shout, the Dreijer siblings retreated into obfuscation as a means to counteract any potential for fame, and as a way to let the music stand for itself. In press photos, they wore plague-doctor masks to cover up their faces; on their first-ever world tour following the success of Silent Shout, they filled the stage with enough distractions that they never became the focal point of a performance. There was an air of mystery about them. Coming shortly after the age of dynamic duos like the White Stripes, who lied about the nature of their relationship until they were eventually found out, they entered a culture that didn’t trust any artist who wasn’t completely forthright. And for two shy and reclusive but theatrical Swedes who made dark, sexy, and often perverse-sounding music, rumors were hard to avoid as a means to replace the facts that so eluded us. Incestuous undertones that had simmered around them since the duo’s creation still permeated years later, and it added to their allure, as if they were about to truly break the last societal taboo. The band rarely explicitly engaged with or played into these rumors, but they didn’t push them away either, and that ended up resonating, adding a biting and dangerous edge to the boundary-free, non-conformist world they had constructed.
And with Silent Shout, the Knife were indeed out to construct a new world, one that was removed from ours but not too far off. A world where all the false fronts and injustices were out in the open, and where that exposure made everyone bitter and angry, bordering on demonic. The biggest hook around the Knife has always been that voice, which mutated in ways on this album that the duo had never experimented with before. That voice, of course, belongs to Karin Dreijer Andersson, but it also seems completely removed from anything that a human being could be capable of producing. The first time you hear the Knife, you don’t know who or what is behind that snarl, and that was the point.
In an interview at the time, Olof Dreijer explained it as such: “If you recognize the voice as Karin, then you also end up back in reality, so you have to create a person who is someone you don’t know, where you don’t know if it’s a male or a female or what.” The Knife used pitch-shifting for transformative purposes: They made humans uglier, more severe. It was as if they had looked into the future and sensed that this cold-blooded, heartless distortion of a voice would be the only way to accurately express the darkness of humanity. Like we’d eventually come to view the human voice as so imperfect, and get so sick of those imperfections, that the only acceptable alternative would be a hollowed-out, devilish growl. It’s the voice of an afflicted generation, probably the one we deserve.
But that voice served a purpose, however grotesque it came across: to expose the horrors that are out there by sounding horrible itself. The Knife were never apathetic or apolitical. They were a radical punk band at heart, and the project’s aim was to encourage the dismantling of the institutions that hold us back. The attitudes expressed on Silent Shout came to define the new wave of political and cultural malaise: the recognition that many injustices were impossible to change because society did not equip us with the proper tools to fix them. But instead of sitting back and giving up, they got angry: The vocal distortion was one of the ways they rattled those chains. They’d make this more explicit in the lead-up to Shaking The Habitual, but even Silent Shout feels ahead of its time for the ideas it puts forth, and the confrontational and dark methods it uses to renders them.
Recently, the Knife gave their first interview since their breakup in which they looked back on Silent Shout. Karin had this to say about the political leanings of the record: “I think a lot of the tracks on Silent Shout are about a numb feeling. I mean, I hate a lot about this society. And I hate that the structures themselves try to do their best to make you numb and passive.” She’s talking about “From Off To On,” the eerie lullaby that posits we’re only getting more complacent and ignorant the more we grow attached to screens: “When we come home, we pull the curtains down, making sure that the TV is on.” (They reiterate on “Marble House“: “It must be safe when it’s on TV.”) It’s an affliction that’s only become worse in the decade since Silent Shout’s release, and the message’s delivery feels prophetic.
In fact, there’s not much on Silent Shout that doesn’t still sound militant and radical. The album is battling against problems we have not yet solved. The songs cover disenfranchisement and economic frustration; they rally against the confines of capitalism. (Certainly, their approach to gender is fluid and malleable in a way that society today is still sadly nowhere near.) The Knife’s political agenda is so well-thought-out and pervasive on record that it’s hard to find an issue that they didn’t at least allude to deconstructing, if not on Silent Shout then throughout the rest of their discography. But the ones they returned to the most often — feminism, identity, structural disorder — are the ones that continue to be the most potent.
“One Hit” is one of the most politically charged songs in the band’s catalog, and hits on all of those topics and more. (It’s also one of their funniest and most sonically playful, a line that the Knife toed with great care.) On this one, Karin is transformed into a borderline comical misogynistic grinch with a great big belly laugh — the guffawing refrain: “how how how how hoo hoo hoo hoo” — and a vendetta for empowerment: “I’ve got a new story now, and it goes like this/ I took my hand out of my pocket, up came a fist/ It was headline news, one more abuse/ I’ve got to tell it with a fist.” The song goes on to tear down gender roles (“So where’s the femininity?/ The one with skirts and high heels/ A shiny sink and homemade meals”) and the fetishization and exploitation of women on film and in art (“Then the lights came on/ It was all a scene/ Bend back, give head, it’s not pornography”). It treats the idea of traditional motherhood and domesticity as a curse with a capitalist bent — “I could do the laundry, the women’s work/ For a reasonable salary, I would wash the world” — and cites one of the messiest, most violent bloodlines in pop culture as the ideal family structure. It’s nauseating and infuriating, and absolutely one of the best songs the Knife have put out. It’d probably place somewhere in the middle of the pack on a ranking of the Silent Shout track list. That’s just how strong this album is.
There’s the inimitable aggression of “We Share Our Mothers’ Health,” with its piercing intro acting as a welcome mat for the Swedish duo: “We came down from the north, blue hands and a torch/ Red wine and food for free/ A possibility.” On the seedy “Neverland,” Karin adopts the persona of a sex worker, or maybe just every woman whose body is constantly being commodified by society for the pleasure of men: “I’m staring at the money that burns in my hand/ I’m dancing for dollars and a fancy hand.” It ends with a question that would apply to either party: “Tell me — will I make it home tonight?” A similar concern is echoed on “The Captain,” which immediately follows: “Coming home after a long, long walk/ Coming home after a long, long war.”
“Na Na Na” demonstrates how well they hide these messages underneath a haunting reflective surface. It’s a creeping and intimidating song on its own, but it takes a hell of a lot of listens or a good pore over a lyrics sheet to understand Karin’s tortured wails on it that call for “chemical castration, hope and godspeed.” “I’ve got mace, pepper spray/ And some shoes that run faster than a rapist rapes,” the voice braces. A weaponized body crops up again on “Like A Pen,” with its cutting synths echoing the violent threat in the opening line: “Sharpen my body like a pen/ Come on, I need to show it.”
A line on “Marble House” sees the band getting a little meta: “The others say we’re hiding/ It’s as forward as I can be.” An argument could be made that, by burying their views under under so many layers, the Knife would never get their messages across as clearly or effectively than if they just stated them outright. But society doesn’t take kindly to music that speaks out against its many ills, and the Knife were probably wise to subsume their radical politics into a palatable but icy electronic pop cocoon. It wouldn’t be until 2013’s Shaking The Habitual that the Knife’s progressive stance really came to the forefront of the conversation surrounding them.
But the Silent Shout of the title rung loud and clear at the time for those willing to hear it. It’s meant to be the shout of the disadvantaged and those who do not have a voice in the current political climate. The shout is co-opted and co-owned by competing destructive forces, but if the myriad personalities on display in Silent Shout attest to anything, it’s that many different voices can come from one person, and they’re all legitimate. “It’s like when you dream and really want to scream something, nothing comes out,” Karin noted in the band’s biography.
Admirably, the Knife never went back to the deep sonic wells of Silent Shout again. (Even when some of the tracks were later given “shaken-up versions” as the Knife’s final statement as a band, they were morphed into prickly abstractions of the real deal.) Karin came close with Fever Ray, but the duo followed it up properly with Tomorrow, In A Year, a deeply weird and experimental electronic opera, and then with Shaking The Habitual, an anarchic punk record that is a formidable achievement but also lacks the easy access points Silent Shout provides. (It’s no coincidence that the two most lasting takeaways from that album — “Full Of Fire” and “A Tooth For An Eye” — hew closer to their earlier work.) But the Knife were a group beyond compare, especially on Silent Shout, and they carved out their own world parallel to ours and left it behind, desolated and waiting for us to figure out which of the pieces were ours to claim and which should be thrown away.