Initially hated and largely ignored since, Knife deserves a better reputation.
The awkward second album is almost a tradition, a mark of shame that every working pop musician has to bear. The Killers’ Brandon Flowers recalled being told by a visibly drunk Bono to “spare us the ‘interesting’ second record” only to go and disregard that advice. It makes sense: if the debut album establishes an artist’s identity, it’s only natural that some artists would attempt to cast that identity aside on the follow-up, sometimes in dramatic fashion. This isn’t always the case–the Strokes essentially repeated themselves with Room on Fire, as one example–but it happens often enough that one could create a sizable library of difficult second albums. Of those, few match the bizarre combination of initial vitriol and continued indifference thrown at Aztec Camera’s Knife.
When analyzing the reactions of a crowd, one should avoid the temptation to be excessively reductive in looking at the root cause. In the case of why critics and fans cast aside Knife in 1984, though, the reductive answer is largely correct: People really didn’t like that Roddy Frame started playing synthesizers. When Frame first came on to the scene as Aztec Camera with his early singles for Postcard Records and eventually High Land, Hard Rain, he was seen (especially in the UK) as a guitar-wielding savior that would break the grip that synth-pop acts had on the pop charts. Not only did he play guitar, but he did so with astonishing technical skill without being a cheese-metal show-off. But now he was using synthesizers and working with, *gasp*, Mark Knopfler! If that reaction seems hyperbolic, that’s because it was. We are talking about the British music press after all, a group who weren’t exactly known for their measured restraint. But these criticisms seem even more ridiculous once one actually sits down and gives Knife a proper listen.
To be honest, there isn’t much of a sonic shift between High Land and Knife. The things that made Roddy Frame’s music distinct in those days–the intricate, jazzy guitar arrangements placed in a more pop-friendly setting–are all pretty much there. The differences, so much as they exist, are much smaller than one would have been led to believe. There are synthesizers, yes, but they don’t overwhelm the proceedings (save for the stomping “The Back Door to Heaven”), and Frame has admitted to having an interest in the instrument well before he started recording Knife, so that can’t all be laid at the feet of Mark Knopfler. What can, though, is the extended focus on the guitar. Perhaps as a result of Knife coming up so quickly after High Land, more than a few of the songs feel underwritten, padded out by long guitar passages. Even lead single “All I Need is Everything”–a brilliant song otherwise–essentially peters out while Frame repeats the same guitar sequence until it eventually fades. How much of this is the result of Knopfler’s influence and how much of it was Frame bristling at being expected to play a certain way is unknown, but the result is an emphasis on instrumental noodling that at times hinders the album.
Still, Knife is by no means a failure. Frame had few equals as a songwriter at the time, and the album contains many of his finest compositions. Length aside, “All I Need is Everything” remains one of his best singles, and “Still on Fire” and “Just Like the U.S.A.” are not far behind. Even something as cheesy as “The Back Door to Heaven” isn’t without its charms. The only real mis-step is the title track, which meanders far too long for its own good. Otherwise, this is a solid album well worth the time and energy of any potential listener.
Initially hated and largely ignored since, Knife deserves a better reputation. In their insistence on castigating Frame for committing egregious sins against that nebulous concepts of indie cred, critics and listeners failed to see what he was able to accomplish. Once the extraneous shit is stripped away, what one is left with is a pretty good album from an artist who was clearly intent on proving that he wasn’t afraid to take risks.