Rating:Blame it on “Heartbeats.” After the success of their most famous song (and its subsequent, ubiquitous cover by Jose Gonzalez), Swedish duo the Knife found themselves in what was doubtlessly an unexpected position: popularity. As with many edgy musical acts, their reaction was to move away from the very thing that brought them mainstream success. Their follow-up album, Silent Shout (2006), was darker and more abrasive than Deep Cuts (2003), with even the most danceable singles having a cold, distant edge. But that’s nothing compared to their latest release, Shaking the Habitual. With their fourth album, the sister-brother duo of Karin Dreijer Andersson and Olof Dreijer have shed any inclinations to pop music, trading their dance floor elements for social statements and bizarre song structures.
Not that any of that is surprising, of course. From their first entry into international success, the Knife have been leery of the mainstream and media exposure (though a cynic might question that, given their willingness to license songs to promote the Sony Corporation and “Entourage” among others), seemingly uncomfortable with the trappings of a pop group. And though their previous albums were largely the product of programming and construction via computer, Shaking the Habitual found Andersson and Dreijer experimenting with live jam sessions eventually coalescing into the album’s 13 tracks. It certainly sounds like it; while there may only be a baker’s dozen of songs on the album, it clocks in at a staggering 96 minutes. As a comparison, both Deep Cuts and Silent Shout only reach 92 when played back-to-back.
All of this is to say, the Knife are not just releasing an album with Shaking the Habitual, they’re releasing a statement. This is not a pop album, and none of its 13 songs have more than a fragment of the mentality that created “Heartbeats” or “Marble House.” The one remaining element of the Knife we’ve heard before is Andersson’s voice (as well as Dreijer’s, to a much lesser extent). Andersson sounds just as unearthly as before, multi-tracking her voice into layers of shrill and deep; she more often sounds simply like another instrument in the mix than a vocalist, often buried so deep that her lyrics become indecipherable. Considering the duo’s recent politicizations, it’s literally difficult to understand what verbal messages they’re attempting to convey.
The same cannot be said of the music itself. Shaking the Habitual is a difficult album in a different way; it has no obvious singles, in the traditional manner of the word, and rarely bothers with much in the way of melody or hook. The opener “A Tooth for an Eye” is one of the few songs with even an inclination towards pop, anchoring around a clattering array of percussive elements, Andersson’s voice and a buried synth line. By contrast, the following track “Full of Fire” is a pounding, aggressive nine minutes; almost two minutes pass before Andersson enters hissing “Sometimes I have problems that are hard to solve/ What’s the story/ What’s your opinion?” “Wrap Your Arms Around Me” is one of the most impressive tracks, with huge, echoing drums and a deep bass accentuating Andersson’s most emotive, passionate vocals. It’s a truly unsettling, yet wrenching song on an album that often steers into the willfully oblique. Case in point, the album’s centerpiece track “Old Dreams Waiting to Be Realized” is over 19 minutes of drone, sometimes bordering on an ominous take on ambient; at the same time, it’s also nearly 20 minutes of slight rises and falls in a synth, broken occasionally by faraway, unrecognizable sounds deep in the mix. It’s an utterly ambitious track like nothing they’ve done before. However, it’s largely just fluctuations of sound, signifying nothing much in particular without a guidebook through their press releases.
Shaking the Habitual will draw a line in the sand for the Knife’s fan base. On one side, they will doubtlessly find many turned off by the sheer scope of the album (on vinyl format, it takes up three LPs) and its uncompromising experimentalism. On the other, this may be the next great step for one of the more enigmatic duos currently working in popular music, if it doesn’t take them out of that arena completely. Only time will tell.