For a group that ended up being so staunchly anti-capitalist, the Knife probably would not have been able to exist if at first they did not sell out. “Heartbeats,” the lead-off to their second album Deep Cuts — which came out in Sweden 20 years ago today — is the only song by the Knife that one could really classify as a hit single. First a minor sensation in their home country, “Heartbeats” was covered by the Gothenberg singer-songwriter José González soon after its release. He turned it into a coffeehouse-style acoustic joint that was in turn licensed to Sony to soundtrack an advertisement to promote a line of televisions.
The Knife were allergic to using their music to sell much of anything, but conceded that without the check from Sony, they would not have been able to continue making the sort of music that they wanted to make. “It doesn’t really feel that good, but the question came when we were in the middle of Silent Shout, and we didn’t have any money or anything, so it made it possible to continue working on the album, the videos, and the live show,” Karin Dreijer said a couple years down the line. “It made it possible to do quite a lot, but at the same time, it’s dirty money.”
I’ve always found it funny that “Heartbeats” was able to take off in the way that it did. It’s a romantic song, sure, but one that’s deeply fucked up, teeming with the Knife’s signature brand of weaponized sexuality. In the popular González cover, you can hear him shy away from the song’s dangerous elements, mumbling when it comes time to sing about razor blades while emphasizing the more palatable notion that “we were in love.” That version still holds onto some power in its own bittersweet way — but it’s nothing compared to the original, a perfect pop song whose dark sonic strains continue to haunt modern radio.
Deep Cuts is weirder and more subversive than even its mutated lead single would suggest. Tucked in at the beginning of the tracklist, “Heartbeats” gives way to an album that’s more in line with what one would come to expect from the Swedish duo: malleable electronic songs that engage with societal taboos in skin-crawling, ecstatic fashion. “I liked the idea of packaging socialist and feminist ideas in a pop format because I believe [in] that strategy,” Olof Dreijer said in one of the band’s official biographies. “I don’t think it’s a great idea doing experimental music that only the elite understand.”
In its own way, Deep Cuts was also a capitulation to commercialism, after the Knife’s 2001 self-titled debut did not land in the way that they intended. Siblings Karin and Olof Dreijer started making music together in 1999. Karin had just stopped being the leader of an indie rock band; Olof had just started experimenting with making music on his computer. They hit on a sound that combined urgent political screeds, pop fluorescence, and abstract expressionism. They started using what would become an invaluable tool in the Knife’s arsenal: pitch-shifting, which allowed Karin to change their voice, possess different characters, take on an arch and cunning theatricality that would fuel their songs going forward.
There are hints of brilliance on The Knife, but the Dreijers were still figuring it out. What it led to was the realization that the best way to get their message across was to make music that people actually wanted to listen to. “We sold, like, 1,000 copies of our first album in Sweden, and we were put in an indie genre. People said, ‘Oh it’s cute, but it’s not music,’ and I think we got angry about that,” Karin said. “So when we did Deep Cuts we said we’d make pop music, because we wanted to reach more [people]. That’s why we used hip-hop beats and Euro-techno disco stuff.”
The Knife set out to make music that couched their radical politics in bright, strobing pop songs. Utilizing free software, the beats on Deep Cuts are rudimentary — brash but effective. Stabbing synthesizers provide a contrast to Karin’s melodies, which often stretch out like taffy as their voice morphs into peculiar shapes and sizes. The icy minimalism that the pair would perfect on Silent Shout was starting to take shape, and you can hear bits of it throughout Deep Cuts, but the songs here are mostly sweaty and abrasive. They serve as a steaming, dramatic backdrop that draws you into what Karin is singing about, as their voice curls and curdles and disappears into the fog as the songs hammer on.
Deep Cuts is the Knife’s most personal album. Not so much in that it reveals anything much about its creators, but in that the songs are focused on the tangled interpersonal webs of gender and sexuality, power and love that infect us all. Take “Listen Now,” a pounding pulse of a song that depicts a lust that is feverish, falling apart, spinning out in a delirious frenzy. “Listen now, I am afraid of everything/ When you told me I was special, it was the happiest moment for a long, long time,” Karin blares. A beautiful sentiment, followed by something that’s seedier, more degrading. “Listen now/ I keep forgetting your name/ When you laid down on the kitchen floor/ It was the happiest moment for a long, long time.”
The Knife could be demented and gleefully feral; they could also be sickeningly sincere. Sexuality in the Knife’s hands is improbably real and impossibly sad. It can sometimes feel empowering, but only as a means to an end — a game we play to pass the time as we stave off the inevitable. The songs on Deep Cuts seek acceptance in debasement. My favorite song on it has always been the simmering, unbearably horny “You Make Me Feel Like Charity,” where Karin mewls about feeling numb and unsatisfied no matter what position they try:
You try to feel but you can’t wake up
You try to touch but you can’t wake up
You’re holding eyes and you don’t wake up
Increase the size and you don’t wake up
I do it backwards but I don’t wake up
Try to reverse but I don’t wake up
I sit astride but I still don’t wake up
They end up repeating a refrain that feels like it’s pulled straight out of a romantic comedy, but the swell of love sounds less triumphant, more tragic and hopelessly out of reach:
I took a cab there to hold her
I took a plane there to feel what she felt
You make me like charity
Instead of paying enough taxes
The revolutionary aspects of Deep Cuts — which would be made more explicit on Silent Shout and especially on the Knife’s incendiary swan song Shaking The Habitual — are all burbling under the surface, but they’re there: in the transactional nature of relationships, in the way that society forces us to oppose each other to get ahead. Sometimes their politics are direct and in-your-face, like on the goofy but memorable “The Cop” and “Hangin’ Out,” where Karin channels machismo at its most toxic: “I keep my dick hangin’ out of my pants/ So I can point out what I want.”
But they’re often more often subtle, depicting the the ways we seek release and try to escape conventionality. Werewolves roam on “Girls Night Out,” laughing and running through the moonlight and shedding their skin: “After one day it started itching/ And we rubbed until it was bleeding.” “Heartbeats,” their biggest song, is about one night of magic rush, free of inhibitions and expectations: “One night to be confused/ One night to speed up truth/ We had a promise made/ Four hands and then away.”
There’s beauty and menace in the freedom that the Knife offer. They understand the power of a song — how it can let you inhabit a character, a mood, a feeling that you can’t in real life. On “You Take My Breath Away,” Karin duets with Jenny Wilson, the singer of the band First Floor Power, about the jolt of pain, satisfaction, recognition that can come with hearing the right song. “You touched my heart, the knife was very sharp,” Wilson sings, as Dreijer threateningly growls: “I keep my knife sharp.” You can lose yourself in music, become someone new. On “Rock Classics,” the narrator meets up with their friend at their favorite café, then finds themselves in the rhythm of bodies: “When the place gets crowded/ Then they freak out and play the techno louder.”
The video for “Pass This On,” which was directed by Johan Renck, depicts the kind of undeniable allure that the Knife and their songs can provide. Swedish drag queen Rickard Engfors stands in a community center singing the track, and it seems like everyone in the audience is trying to ignore the performance as much as possible. But slowly, people start to get up and move — including Olof, in a rare public appearance — and by the end everyone is gesticulating syrupy slow to the music, as if they are compelled by some higher power to dance it out.
Deep Cuts was successful in Sweden, and the Knife were recognized as a promising young prospect — but the duo was already plotting to get away from their burgeoning fame. “In Sweden, it was like, just because you make music that is popular in a certain way, you’re supposed to want to be famous and be part of talk shows and radio shows and be on TV and do all sorts of crazy stuff,” Olof noted. “And I think we were very irritated that people didn’t think the music could stand for itself.” When the Knife won the Swedish Grammi for Pop Group Of The Year, the Dreijers sent their friends dressed as gorillas in their stead; soon enough, they’d adopt the plague doctor masks that would serve as their introduction to America and beyond as Silent Shout became an underground phenomenon. In the coming decade, they’d expand on the ideas they explored on Deep Cuts, and in the process disappear into their art completely.