REVIEW: The Knife – Shaking the Habitual

This is going to be a long one. Strap in.

Once more for the cheap seats: When I first heard The Knife’s Silent Shout, I hated it. I hated it enough to rant to everyone I knew about how much I hated it. I hated that everyone loved it, and I hated how it sounded. I hated the people I knew that loved it. But over time, I grew to truly adore the record. Now, I could put on Silent Shout three times a day and I would never feel like I had heard it enough times. It stands up as one of the most forward-thinking records I’ve ever heard, subverting everything I thought I knew about not only songwriting conventions, but about what it means to make solid pop music. That’s something that 20-year-old Hollister saw that 16-year-old Hollister did not, and that is okay.

Silent Shout was over seven years ago. Since then, The Knife have been entirely dormant, letting Karin Dreijer-Andersson make a record as Fever Ray before everyone went back to sleep. When they rumbled back to life, it felt like nothing had really changed at all. The first song back, “Full of Fire”, was a rumbling, bleak track that was almost impossible to ignore – especially because that single was nearly nine-and-a-half minutes long. Then “A Tooth For An Eye” came out, and besides the incredibly insane imagery and press done for the record (I’m not even going to get into the press release for this album), it felt like the most natural progression possible for the band. But as facts about Shaking the Habitual came to light, it started becoming apparent that The Knife were less of a dormant band, and more of a dormant war machine, ready to rattle things up a bit more than one might have expected.

One thing that you cannot get past is the fact that this album is an odyssey. At just shy of 100 minutes long, it dares you to take it all in in one sitting, a task that few people have the time or patience for. Those first two singles serve as Shaking the Habitual‘s first two tracks, and as said, they feel like natural Knife songs. The former comes right out of the gate with Dreijer-Andersson hollering over steel drum beats, and it is this song that gives birth to a line that feels like the motto for the album as a whole: “I’m telling you stories, trust me.” In hindsight, after listening through the album, this is more of a warning than anything else. What they’re doing here is taking us along for a great, big, long story. The theme of stories holds on throughout the album, and is ever-present on “Full of Fire”: “Sometimes I get problems that are hard to solve / What’s your story? That’s my opinion / Questions and the answers can take very long / Here’s a story, what’s your opinion?” You get a sense of being included in the proceedings with these lines, and that little touch makes it almost feel like an interactive experience.

Those first two songs comprise the first 15 minutes of the album, and there’s no real preparing you for what sits outside those borders. “A Cherry on Top” makes it abundantly clear right out of the gate that you’re leaving your comfort zone with its strobing synth drones, reminiscent of “The Captain” from Silent Shout. But the thing to remember about that song is that it was a short ride that lasted nearly three minutes less than this one, and the payoff is a paperweight meditation on the permanence of classist society. It’s a trying experience for the casual listener to drudge through some of the vast swaths of sonic wastelands, where melody is a mere afterthough if it is a thought at all. But The Knife, for as trying as Shaking the Habitual is, know that they can’t throw everything at you at once, and provide you with rest stops along the way. “Without You My Life Would Be Boring” comes up next, and is one of the catchiest tracks that The Knife have ever made, positively begging for a dancefloor remix by one of their more sensible peers. At least, that’s how it seems at first, until you decide that you want to read the lyrics: “A handful of elf pee / That’s my soul / spray it all over / fill the bowl / legs astride / an axe to grind / generous actions with the speed of light.” The message contained in the title and chorus may be sweet, but this is a song that is meant to be about territorial pissing, literally. It’s no wonder the track is so incredibly fun: It’s actively trying to get you acclimated as quickly as possible before it throws something else at you.

“Wrap Your Arms Around Me” is up next, and it does about the same thing. It’s a stomping, massive, almost Drums Not Dead-era-Liars-esque slog that feels like one of the quickest songs on the record. It’s dark and sexual, and it gives way perfectly to “Crake”, the album’s second shortest track, a wall of feedback and reverb that leads startlingly into “Old Dreams Waiting to Be Realized”, one of the most trying tracks on the record. Standing tall at just over 19-minutes, it’s one of the biggest teases I’ve ever heard. This is the sonic twin of a passing cloud, drifting by and occasionally threatening to start a downpour, but just when you feel a couple drops on your cheek and ready yourself, you realize that nothing’s going to happen. This happens all over this song. Just when you’re absolutely sure that the song is about to start, for real, it retreats back into itself, and you’re left wondering if the track is attempting to troll you. It just might be.

Massive tracts of time pass without much happening, and you begin to forget about the human element of things. 20 minutes is a long time to go without hearing another human being on a record like this, and when “Raging Lung” comes on, the weight comes down on your shoulders like you wouldn’t believe. It’s a heady song, one of the strongest of this offering, with Dreijer-Andersson cooing seductively from behind a barricade of tribal beats: “Hear my love sigh, I’ve got a story that money just can’t buy.” We’re back here again. “Networking” is one of the few songs that bears a sonic resemblance to the band’s previous works, ablaze with hyper-synthesized beats that beg you to nod your head along and sway in place. This song is also a tease: just when you think the vocals are about to kick in, it pulls back, leaving you feeling slightly cold. “Oryx” is the shortest of songs here, a 36-second blast of feedback almost like “Crake”, but without the melody. “Stay Out Here” stands ahead, as the final waystation of normalcy, a 10-minute wave of dark beats and pleas of “Love me”, a request that can be hard to contend with at times. The final hurdle, “Fracking Fluid Injection”, is up next. This song is 10-minutes shorter than “Old Dreams Waiting to Be Realized”, but this is a song that makes you feel every single second. It is nearly ten minutes of (what sounds like to me) an experiment in excess, where violins are played without rosin and looped through a delay pedal, with Shannon Funchess and Emily Roysdon yowling behind it. It is trying. “Ready to Lose” finishes us off, gently and for the first time, you actually feel like you’re listening to a song that the band that you came to see made: it’s sexy, and presents itself as a diatribe about classist societies (“Ready, ready to lose a privilege / An ongoing habit / a transfer of possessions”), and it bobs along at a pace that, while just a touch too slow, makes you feel right at home.

You may not like this album. It’s entirely likely that The Knife designed Shaking the Habitual to fight against its listener, presented at times to be a trap that was put there to aggravate and frustrate each and every person who listens to it. That’s the album cover up there, and it almost feels like even that was designed to illicit a negative response. But, as said earlier, they aren’t stupid, and they know that those pop conventions thrown into the mix are meant to help you get used to the water, inch by inch, rather than throwing you into the pool straight away. For its length, even the 19-minute “Old Dreams” never feels as long as it actually is, and the 96 minutes go by incredibly quickly. It is going to take a lot of time for us to get far enough away from this album to completely understand everything that Olof Andersson and Karin Dreijer-Andersson put into each and every second of this album. You get the feeling that every note is completely deliberate, and this is a feeling that can keep you holding on throughout. Shaking the Habitual is, in a lot of ways, not as much an album as it is a singular experience that urges you to spend the time on it, rather than listening to it passively. It serves as a mission statement for two people who want to – if you’ll forgive me for the turn of phrase – shake the habitual as much as they can, and challenge you to see things from a different perspective. Whether or not you like it is up to the listener, the passenger on this journey, but nobody will ever be able to accuse The Knife of compromising the vision they have. I’m just glad I came around and was able to experience this on good terms with the band.

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