When I worked at a rape crisis center, I had an older co-worker named Tamara. She was often invited to speak publicly about women’s issues, particularly rape and abuse. “I am very angry,” she told me. “But I would never come across that way when public speaking. You must speak calmly to be understood when talking about these kinds of issues to the general public.” Like Tamara, Knife singer Karin Dreijer Anderson’s power doesn’t come from being hysterical or angry like an animal, it comes from the calming confidence she asserts with every feminist lyric.
The Knife’s new album Shaking the Habitual opens with “A Tooth for an Eye,” showcasing Karin’s powerful yet ethereal holler. When she eventually escalates to a disgruntled growl, your body floods with goosebumps. You can tell she is thinking, knowingly distressed. She’s talking about rewriting history, something feminists have attempted for decades, the stories that have been told that do not make sense to her, her brother or her children. Feminist epistemologies are woven throughout the record. The often indecipherable lyrics pose questions about gender, race, Swedish monarchy and the distribution of power.
“Let’s talk about gender, baby. Let’s talk about you and me,” Karin repeats on the album’s first single, “Full of Fire.” Arguably the most blatant track about challenging patriarchy, this near-10-minute stamp of aggression comes at the listener like a firework spinning out of control. “What’s the story?” she asks. “It’s my opinion.”
It’s not obvious, but the music video for “Full of Fire” (directed and shot by feminist pornographer and friend of the band Marit Östberg, and created in conjunction with the music itself), the album artwork and Liv Strömqvist’s accompanying comic strip (which Karin and her partner in the Knife, her brother Olof Dreijer, insisted all interviewers read before talking to them) all play with the politics in the Knife’s lives regarding capitalism and the distribution of wealth, queer theory and intersectionality (the boxes we put one another in, including gender, class, race, sexuality and how those categories define our realm of possibilities when moving through out the world.) Making political art always runs a risk of being misunderstood when brought to a wide audience, but the Knife’s process is so calculated that everything has great purpose: the specific shade of pink on the album cover, the degree of delay on Karin’s howl, the gentle clanging sound buried deep in the back of a song. The Knife’s songs are not minimal by any means, but nothing is extraneous either. They know how to set a mood and convey politics while also introducing unrepeatable tones that are both beautiful and terrifying. The Knife is not just creating a batch of songs, but a meticulous library in their very own secret dialect.
Shaking the Habitual is careful. Most of the songs are over eight minutes long and toy with conventional ideas about what constitutes a song (verse-chorus-verse-bridge) as well as how an entire album should be structured. It’s indicative of Shaking the Habitual’s entire concept: Deconstructing the “isms” and challenging social structures and power. This is reflected in the sonics, which are completely unconventional. Although they’re capable of writing intelligent, stand-out pop music (recall “Heart Beats”?), Karin and Olof are even better at creating tempestuous sound plays that fall far outside the standard electro-pop barriers. They have a way of making chaotic, clanking kitchen-tool-smashing, electronic flinches and oddball plucks weave together to make absolute sense. They have no competition.
Between the more truculent tracks like “Full of Fire” and “Without You My Life Would Be Boring,” Shaking the Habitual fills the space with electronic arrangements that are emotive and discomforting. “Crake” powerfully cuts through your ears while “Oryx” challenges with combative confrontation. A nearly 20-minute long track in the middle of the record titled “Old Dreams Waiting to Be Realized” builds for the first four minutes with fragile alien-like noises until a tapping (which sounds like someone drumming a piece of leather between their thighs) frantically enters the song. It fades in and out as the synths swarm and enclose the listener in the windy echoes.
Like everything else the Knife has done, Shaking the Habitual was meant to be listened to on really good headphones, to bat between your ears and carve out the inside of your head like shelling seeds from a pumpkin. It’s a process. Their sonic performances stay swimming in your system long after the stereo has shut off.
Perhaps the most compelling moment on Shaking the Habitual is “Raging Lung,” if only for Karin’s vocal delivery. Next to the backdrop of pitter-pattering drums, Karin’s melody swarms and haunts like a spell. “And that’s when it hurts,” she hollers. “The difference.” She has this way of creating massive amounts of power in her delivery without overcompensating with the obvious ways of asserting oneself. This, along with those incredible sounds, is what helps make Shaking the Habitual work as a strong political statement. It’s intellectual, well thought out and curious without threatening. It asks questions in a calming manner, through brilliantly orchestrated electronic songs that place the Knife in a league of their own.