The Swedish electronic duo The Knife kicked off the promotion of their fifth album, Shaking the Habitual, with a long interview on Pitchfork that framed the record entirely in terms of obscure Swedish politics, feminist and queer theory, and arguments you’d most likely find in a grad school seminar or the social justice blog community on Tumblr. Everything they said was earnest and intelligent, but it did a horrible job of conveying what their album is actually like. Shaking the Habitual is not dry and academic, or strident, or overly cerebral. It’s actually one of the most physically and emotionally evocative records in recent memory: a collection of songs that explores issues of identity and gender with the visceral urgency of a great horror movie.
You don’t need to know anything about radical theory or have an investment in social justice to get anything out of Shaking the Habitual. The music, full of blunt rhythms, odd frequencies, and dissonant noise, is engineered to give you chills and keep you on edge. They are still making dance music — that’s been the one major through line from their first records in the early ’00s on through their more conceptual works, like their avant-garde opera about the life of Charles Darwin — but their rhythms on “Full of Fire” and “Networking” are so spiky and frenetic that they make you feel like you’re experiencing a manic episode. The cuts that most resemble ballads, like “Wrap Your Arms Around Me” and “Raging Lung,” approach the overwhelming emotion of their 2003 breakthrough track “Heartbeats” from another direction, rendering a similar intensity of feeling as a slowly crushing force.
The social justice ideas are there in the music, but they’re mostly buried in the subtext. The band’s interview with Pitchfork and their album art, which includes slogans like “END EXTREME WEALTH,” indicate that the duo are afraid that their audience might not notice these themes.
It’s unfortunate, because this didactic streak is at odds with what makes this music so compelling. It’s not hard to come by blogs and books that articulate social justice arguments in dry or shrill language, but it is difficult to come by art that so accurately conveys the emotion that makes people feel so passionately about these issues. Compared with a song like “Full of Fire,” which makes you feel like you’re being eaten alive by resentment, confusion, and alienation, a slogan or a reference to an academic work is cheap and easily ignored.
The music on Shaking the Habitual is unnerving, and some of it, like the eerie “A Cherry on Top,” plays out like a sloooooow nightmare. There is a 19-minute-long ambient track at the center of the record called “Old Dreams Waiting to Be Realized,” and it’s like an abyss that dares you to have the guts to stare into it. It’s a piece of music that’s actually more effective if you can’t make it through the full duration, because skipping ahead is like admitting that you don’t have what it takes to spend that much time thinking about how you — and society at large — cannot improve.
Shaking the Habitual, like most of the music The Knife have made to date — along with singer Karin Dreijer Andersson’s solo album as Fever Ray — is, at its core, very goth in its tone and themes. Relentlessly morbid, intentionally unsettling, and alluring in its romanticized bleakness. But despite this, it’s pretty rare that you see anyone label The Knife as goth, perhaps because they’ve avoided the most obvious signifiers of the subculture every step of the way. The Knife aren’t about goth as living in a permanent Halloween; they’re about that connection between romance and horror. And those feelings are a big part of being engaged with social justice issues: the outrage directed at oppressors, the frustration with cultures that refuse to change, the unshakable fear that the world is only getting worse, the loneliness of feeling like a hated outsider, the thrill of finding a like-minded community. They’ve done this better than pretty much anyone else in music; it’s just too bad that they went a bit too far in advertising it.