Shaking it up

My first response on reading The Knife’s avant-garde manifesto of a press release for their long-awaited new album Shaking The Habitual was “at last!” At last, a contemporary act dear to my heart have taken the plunge, blending their wired, pulsing pop with an informed and questioning political stance. It’s been unfashionable for so long that I wondered if it would ever happen again.

I’ve often thought of The Knife as genuine inheritors of the post-punk spirit. In contrast to that slew of revivalists ten or twelve years ago who more or less missed the whole point of post-punk’s fixation on making it new, The Knife have long toyed unpredictably with the tropes of the electronic pop which forms the bedrock of their sound. Synth settings that might once have been forever branded ‘Eurodance – do not touch’, for example, are re-animated and tweaked into idiosyncratic new constellations. Like bands such as The Pop Group, Cabaret Voltaire and The Raincoats, their formal experiment also goes hand in hand with a subversive intent, emphasised not just musically but at the point of production: The Knife remain a staunchly independent outfit, and the album is Creative Commons licensed.

The stabbing, moaning ambience of ‘Fracking Fluid Injection’ obliquely brings together feminist and ecological critique in the uncomfortable, penetrative suggestions of its title

Shaking The Habitual, after all, isn’t the first time the Swedish brother-sister duo have short-circuited that pernicious divide between pop and politics. A few examples come to mind: drag artist Richard Engfors dancing with Olof as a surly teenage boy in the video to ‘Pass This On’ while a ghetto blaster pumps out the song’s cheesily exquisite Casio steel drum riff; the monstrous voice of domestic abuse frenziedly conducting the bombastic bounce of ‘One Hit’; the ironic laddishness of Karin’s pitch-shifted boast on ‘Hangin’ Out’ (“I keep my dick hanging out of my trousers/so I can point out what I want”).

However, it is the first time The Knife have made straddling the pop and politics divide their main focus. Appropriately enough, given our current situation of seemingly never-ending economic gloom, it’s also the first time The Knife have united their always more obvious sexual politics with the broader left-leaning outlook that’s tended to bubble further under the surface of their work. The juddering ‘Ready To Lose’ shows up the reproductive role of the nuclear family in capitalism, while the stabbing, moaning ambience of ‘Fracking Fluid Injection’ obliquely brings together feminist and ecological critique in the uncomfortable, penetrative suggestions of its title.

There’s a hint of this ‘haven’t you gone too far for the masses?’ attitude in The Knife’s Guardian interview

As its name implies, the new album is a somewhat challenging piece of work in comparison with its predecessors. Feature after feature has drawn attention to the patience-testing textures and long track lengths of many songs, suggesting a more or less complete change of direction. Some of this reaction is exaggerated – the windy bass, ominous pace and melancholically soaring chorus of the first half of ‘Raging Lung’ is classic Knife, as are the rapidly panning thrums of ‘Networking’ and the rinky-dink rhythms of ‘A Tooth For An Eye’. There’s no shortage of full-throated, sing-along moments either.

Elsewhere, however, things are indeed more difficult, as in the static and distortion of Margaret Atwood-referencing ‘Oryx’ and ‘Crake’ and the sporadically interrupted nineteen minute drone of ‘Old Dreams Waiting To Be Realised’. As the pair told Sam Richards in his Guardian interview with them, they wanted to avoid a disconnect between the way the lyrical content interrogates assumptions and the rest of the music. The same is true of the artwork – its livid turquoise-on-magenta colour scheme makes the eyes throb and swim. My friend, a former equalities officer for his trade union branch, took one look and remarked drily “that’s not very accessible, is it?”

On this point, there’s the possibility that The Knife echo the post-punk moment in a somewhat knottier fashion. Back then, it wasn’t long before the same critics who had lauded radical rants, quixotic sonic quests and film canisters in place of cardboard sleeves switched allegiances, stereotyping post-punk as anal, joyless, wilfully obscure and elitist. In its place they agitated for a return to ‘pop’, as though they knew what pop should sound like, or believed that the market simply reflected popular tastes, rather than using its muscle to enforce and stabilise them.

There’s a hint of this ‘haven’t you gone too far for the masses?’ attitude in The Knife’s Guardian interview. Though Richards celebrates their boldness, he also jests that “it sometimes feels like the Knife’s feminist theory has an answer for everything. Don’t like their new tune-free tracks? That’s because you’ve been…conditioned to enjoy the decadent concept of melody.” Behind this is the implication that culturally and politically radical experiment will always be high-falutin’ and tight-lipped, alien to the wide appeal and pure pleasure of pop. Shaking The Habitual, however, is fun: single ‘Full of Fire’ features a cheeky Salt ‘n’ Pepa reference and album highlight ‘Without You My Life Would Be Boring’ opens with the line “a handful of elf pee”. The album comes packaged with a hilarious cartoon peopled with characters such as ‘Dr Blami Blami’, imagining what might happen if the IMF committed itself to a target of ending extreme wealth by 2015.

If I were to raise any doubt myself over the album, it would concern the slightly rusty postmodernist sheen of its intellectual backdrop, which sits a little awkwardly with The Knife’s otherwise sparkling, forward-facing attitude. For far too long, opponents of bigotry and rampant capitalism have taken solace in an approach that is all questions and very few answers, a too-convenient fall-back position in dark times. This is present on Shaking The Habitual, for instance, in ‘Stay Out Here’s claim that “most things we love are open ended” and a quotation from Michel Foucault on the lyric sheet which warns against didacticism in favour of the constant undermining of common sense.

But amidst the necessity of making popular art which is the aural and visual equivalent of Road Runner dashing furiously on the spot in the thin air beyond the cliff edge, it is also surely essential to suggest concrete alternatives. Those in power know exactly what they’re up to and what they want the world to look like, and in the face of this, those of us in the remaining 99% need a bit of direction ourselves. To be fair, this is something the pair have considered: referring to their current spectacular live show, planned with an all-female collective of artists, Karin asserts that “it’s important to show that it is possible to work feminist in the way you organise yourself”. Olof, meanwhile, notes that “you can really try out political alternatives and utopias” in music. Besides which, given the choice between The Knife and the current pop landscape, dominated by the absurd misogynistic bling of the likes of Flo Rida, my criticism is a bit churlish. Without The Knife my life would be boring.

Shaking The Habitual is out now

Image: A live shot of The Knife by Inge Knoff. Used according to a flickr creative commons licence

Video commentaries

First video The Knife, A Tooth For An Eye. A group of men, ranging fairly widely in age, fitness and ethnic background prepare for a fitness class in a changing room. They emerge from the changing room and begin to exercise in what looks like a gym hall. A young girl with four braids, wearing a black and white football shirt appears amongst them, and begins to lip sync to the songs vocal track. Exercise becomes choreography, with the young girl seemingly leading the choreography. She winks to camera, the hall becomes dark, choreography continues, sparklers are acquired. She blows a football whistle. The lights come back on, everyone stops.

Second video The Knife, Full of Fire: To read about Full of Fire and its accompanying video, including a full video description, click here.

David Wilkinson is nearing completion of a PhD on British post-punk, feminism and the left. He doesn’t go clubbing anymore, but if The Knife invited him on a night out…