I suppose this is a pretty highbrow album or piece of work. It references the philosopher Foucault, authors Jeanette Winterson and Margaret Atwood and apparently its themes are gender, queer politics, capitalism and environmentalism. This in itself is not a problem and sounds like it should be pretty thrilling, dynamic experience but on the whole it’s not obvious from listening to Swedish electronic duo The Knife’s fourth album what this album is about, if that, in fact, is even important. When half of the tracks are instrumental as is the case here then it’s more about a mood or a feeling being conveyed through the music without a dependency on lyrical explanations and admittedly there are some ugly, challenging and uncomfortable sounds present but not many that you would not want to listen to more than 2 or 3 times at the very most. And music, unlike film for the majority at least, is surely made for repeated listens so it’s maybe not a coincidence that half of this album does sound like a score, a soundtrack to a probably not very good film, with a dystopian theme maybe. I just don’t really get it, or maybe I should come clean and say I just don’t really like it.
I have loved The Knife, I do love The Knife. “Deep Cuts”, their second album, is a brilliant, pioneering album that was so influential that elements of their sound began to seep into the mainstream and it still sounds weird, silly, political yes, but completely accessible and relevant today. Its follow up, “Silent Shout”, was more linear and cohesive and much darker and it cemented one of those very rare things; The Knife had developed their own sound that was as much about song writing as it was about vocals; often distorted, and a sonic landscape which was nightmarish often but consistently beautiful and intricate. It was instantly recognisable, as them. At the core were the songs though, the melodies, and they were beautiful and sad like “Marble House” and you can sing along to “Heartbeats” or the elegant ‘Pass This On’ and this is where “Shaking The Habitual” differs from their previous work; there are no real tunes here, nothing that you can easily connect to.
‘A Tooth For An Eye’ misleads as the opening track, it tricks you with its relative simplicity and traditional song structure and on the big pounding, tribal drums of “Wrap Your Arms Around Me” there is an imperial, dangerous mood created; if these 2 tracks had been a teaser for the album I would be extremely excited about what’s potentially to come. The first 5 minutes of “Raging Lung” do pretty much the same thing and are very good but the following 4 minutes drag and drone on and make the whole thing a chore. On the lead single “Full of Fire”, all ten minutes of it, which is highly rhythmic and percussive dance music for people who don’t (or can’t) dance Karin Dreijer Andersson bemoans ‘liberals giving me a nerve itch’ and by the time the seagull noises come in around the 4 minute mark and there’s still 6 minutes to go I can completely relate. On the final 20 seconds of the track though my favourite pop cultural reference on the album appears, far more low-brow than the others; Salt ‘n’ Pepa’s ‘Let’s Talk About Sex’, changed here to ‘let’s talk about gender baby, let’s talk about you and me’; brilliant and effective. And there are flickers of brilliance in this track and repeated listens really do pay off, there is in fact a musical riff and lyrically it’s pretty funny and interesting but I’m just not sure how many people will bother to put the effort in.
The 20 minute “Old Dreams Waiting to Be Realised” which is bare, ambient electronic, is just so very, very boring; surely this wasn’t the siblings’ intention? To make something that would soundtrack an art exhibition or installation but is ultimately background music? “Fracking Fluid Injection” is obviously, from the title, making a political statement although I’m not sure how and to who exactly? No one will get to the end of this track, with its ten minutes of sawing noises and some screeching who isn’t already a fan and doesn’t already shares the band’s beliefs. So what’s the point? It is in no way pleasurable to listen to; it grates and aggravates. The final track “Ready to Lose” is excellent; it isn’t much of a progression musically from “Silent Shout” or “Fever Ray”, Andersson’s solo project, but it sounds magnificent and it makes it point.
Many people will consider this album to an important, revolutionary piece of work but it’s ultimately narrow and pretentious in the worst possible sense when it could and should have been exhilarating, difficult and addictive. I am deeply suspicious of the many reviewers who will heap superlatives onto this album but who are unlikely to listen to it again, not because they don’t have the time but because they have no desire too. Don’t alienate the people you could be entertaining and maybe, possibly, educating too, although this is almost always too much to ask.