I have a hard time coming up with a rebuttal to the notion that a lot of what we consider “popular” underground music is complacent and/or conformist. Many of the most highly praised albums in recent history favor personal, relatable songwriting over controversial or abstract themes. When we consider the history of music as a tool of liberation, it seems incredible that we could have lost such an important tool for voicing the voiceless in a tumultuous age where privacy, freedom of information, and political integrity are all being threatened or questioned. Of the few artists still willing to still speak out through their music (see: Killer Mike, Godspeed You! Black Emperor, M.I.A., among a few others) The Knife have found something sufficiently more profound to declare on their fourth album Shaking the Habitual, their first release since 2006’s Silent Shout.
Shaking the Habitual, while thematically heavy, can be phenomenally subtle at times. The Knife are a duo who have rarely been conspicuous with their message, often hiding behind masks or releasing bizarre press sheets that read more like serial killer manifestos than promotional materials for launching an album. When Karin Dreijer Andersson won Swedish Public Radio’s award for Best Dance Artist for her 2009 solo album Fever Ray, she accepted the award by revealing a mask of melted flesh and moaning in strained agony into the microphone. The audience (and most of the internet) took it as a stunt or prank — a fair assumption since the costume was never really explained. But appearing at an award show is already a notable occurrence for a member of The Knife, a band who has famously turned down making any appearances at any of the numerous Swedish Grammis they have won for their music. Andersson’s Fever Ray acceptance speech coincided with a rise in acid throwing attacks in the Middle East and India, where women were disfigured for dressing inappropriately, attending school, or any other violation of archaic law. It was a silent commentary on an ignored tragedy on a national stage.
Musically, Shaking battles with itself throughout most of its 96-minute runtime between subtlety and seething rage, oftentimes blending contrasting emotions with music that reflects the opposite, like the bouncy, Caribbean-influenced opener “A Tooth for an Eye”. Despite the brightness of the music, Andersson fiercely concludes the song by demanding “[Draw] lines with a ruler / Bring the fuel to the fire”. It’s a mission statement that youth uprisings in Egypt and Libya adopted years ago. One that separates this kind of demonstration from whatever the hell this is. Though in spite of the militaristic intentions of some of more aggressive songs here, there are equal moments of frail uncertainty. “A Cherry on Top” sounds on the verge of snapping in half, with a detuned zither plucking aimlessly beside a mournful hymn. “Fracking Fluid Injection” is 10 minutes of shrill mechanical sounds rhythmically toying with echoed mumbles. “Wrap Your Arms Around Me”, despite its romantic title, sounds more like a funeral dirge than a passionate slow dance. Where some of the more accessible tracks on Shaking are upfront with their intentions, a large portion of the album expects a certain degree of critical interpretation from the audience.
Yet from the retina-burning cover art to the extensive dissonant ambient pieces that extend this album’s runtime past one and a half hours, everything about Shaking the Habitual is purposefully confrontational. The violent drum machine kicks that rattle throughout the 9-minute single “Full of Fire” eventually give way to a cacophony of belching and pulsing electronic feedback where Andersson’s Salt-n-Pepa referencing coda “Let’s talk about gender baby / let’s talk about you and me” is consumed by some sort of suffocating distortion. Later on during “Raging Lung” she states through gritted teeth: “You’ve got your money / and you’ve got it because others can’t”
But the most controversial and antagonistic moment of the album is the 19-minute centerpiece “Old Dreams Waiting to Be Realized”. It’s an impossible piece to ignore, due both to it’s overwhelming length and placement in the middle of the album. In a traditional record, a song like this would be a mood killer; completely deflating any momentum or pacing set by the first half. But here, after 35 minutes of politically-charged fire, it’s a welcome and necessary opportunity for contemplation. Quivering ambient patches inflate and deflate behind an amalgam of ominous noise. Footsteps slosh through damp mud, a metallic hum throws itself down a concrete hallway, doors slam and warning sirens chatter in and out of audible range. It is — cliches aside –frighteningly post-apocalyptic.
A continuing thematic pattern throughout the album deals with power struggles and class issues prevalent in 21st century capitalism. And while The Knife continually borrow elements of Eastern and tribal music, it rarely feels exploitative or farcical. Because for all of the co-opting of traditionally non-Western instruments and styles, it’s the progressive mindset and recognition of advantages (like the chorus of “Ready to Lose” that repeats “Ready to lose the privilege”) that makes the melting-pot of influences feel more communal than naive.
Shaking the Habitual, like many other great politically-charged albums before it, rarely claims to have the solutions to the problems it describes. It simply lays out a devastating narrative of what the world has become under our watch. Think of the ambiguity of Dylan’s “Blowin’ in the Wind” in comparison to this record and you’ll find a striking number of similarities. There are few instructions for reform, just incentives to achieve it. In reality, the social influence of this record will take years to understand. If it has one weakness, it’s the audience it’s trying to reach. This is, after all, the MTV generation we’re speaking to here. If extreme wealth inequality, war, poverty, racism, monarchy, and oppression won’t rile up the Tumblring youth of today, what will? Apathy killed punk as we knew it, and it’s taken us this long to figure out how to get it back.
Shaking the Habitual is out April 9th via Rabid Records.