In all honesty, XLR8R doesn't really need to weigh in on whether or not the new LP by Swedish duo The Knife is any good. It's been seven years since the spellbinding Silent Shout ushered in a new era of moody synth-pop, four years after singer Karin Dreijer Andersson once again captivated The Knife's fans with her bewitching Fever Ray project, and even Deep Cuts' decade-old hit "Heartbeats" continues to charm just about anyone who hears it. Basically, records like Shaking the Habitual arrive more or less entrenched in hype, expectations, and adoration. (XLR8R even went so far as to explore the highs and lows of the collective preconceptions before we'd heard more than a tenth of its music.) So, if we don't need to explain why The Knife's 98-minute behemoth of a fourth album is one of the best releases of 2013, we'll instead talk about why it should be considered one of the most important albums in recent memory.
In interviews, press releases, and a recent short film called The Interview, Karin and her brother Olof Dreijer have spelled out in so many words that they had no intention of following up Silent Shout. But when the idea came up about three years ago, the siblings decided that any new work they embarked on would have to marry their political interests with whatever music was created. So they hit the books—studying up on political theory, gender issues, socioeconomics, '70s protest songs, et al.—and emerged with the seeds that would grow into the driving force behind their new album. Musically, The Knife abandoned most of the haunted electronics which drew so many people to its previous full length (a risky move, no doubt). They sought out unique spaces to record their own live sounds, looking for a place "where the border between normal and strange is erased," as Karin puts it in The Interview. She goes on to explain how she and her brother created their own instruments, played "traditional instruments in non-traditional ways," and discovered methods of making "traditional sounds" in their own fashion. It would appear that The Knife was basically looking to explore the concept of what an album can be in 2013, and in the process, find a way to invert what popular music means. The notion is furthered by the pair's expressed needs to "experiment with time" and make music "that is impossible to consume in a quick and easy way." With all of this in mind, it's easy to see that Shaking the Habitual had a distinct purpose from the start, something beyond the usual intent to entertain and make a profit. The Knife has used the LP format to carefully organize a deliberate affront on the way Westernized music and culture is created, commercialized, and consumed.
"Full of Fire" was the first leak to appear from Shaking the Habitual—though maybe not because it's the album's best single per se, but because it's an all-encompassing representation of The Knife's stark new direction. The song is a full-bodied treatise on the perversion of world history set to raucously disquieting protest music disguised as a 10-minute noise-techno track. Songs like "A Tooth for an Eye" and "Without You My Life Would Be Boring" might be better suited for the role of an easily digestible single, though even that feels like reaching. Driven by heavy assaults of tribal percussion, ghostly breaths of flute, and a rubbery hook made from who knows what, "Without You..." is an absolute standout which sounds something like Drum's Not Dead-era Liars covering one of M.I.A's early Diplo-produced tunes. "A Tooth for an Eye" is equally strong, and bears the closest resemblance to the bubbly pop format once wielded by The Knife, although it's been stretched out to six minutes and is fueled by the raging flames of discontent.
While there are a handful of songs that do go down a bit more quickly and smoothly than the others, most of Shaking the Habitual comprises bouts of cavernous feedback, frenetic dancefloor tunes, and murky balladry that are all as equally disturbing as they are engrossing. The excellent "Raging Lung" explores a thumping, low-slung backbeat rife with heavy drums, groaning low end, and chirpy alien croaks. Karin's brooding vocal melodies give the song a chimerical power when she sings lyrics like "I've got a story that money just can't buy," but once past the halfway mark, the track veers away from its chantable chorus into an instrumental jam session littered with discordant noise and the rattle of detuned guitars. And all of this follows immediately after Shaking the Habitual's proverbial elephant in the room: a wordless, 19-minute, warped and distorted noise composition whose presence can only be explained as "conceptual" or "metaphorical." "Old Dreams Waiting to be Realized," though it may very well be the least frequently revisited of the 13 tracks, almost feels like the entire reason why The Knife even bothered to record a fourth album. Obviously, the size of the thing demands that the listener confront its existence, but the fact alone that its two creators decided to use their enormous audio experiment as the centerpiece of what some might call a "comeback album" is the mark of genuine artistry and protest. (And to return to that space once again on the nine-minute "Fracking Fluid Injection" is borderline belligerent.) Suffice it to say that Shaking the Habitual is a "difficult" album in nearly every sense of the word, and rightfully so. Nothing that so directly and effectively challenges people's ideas about the world around them could ever be familiar or effortless.
Most contemporary artists would give up any number of prized possessions for the stature and mythos that has been cultivated around The Knife's singular view of music and remarkable live performances over the years, and the pair duly note this, often referring to themselves as "privileged." Though it's safe to assume they aren't exactly oligarchs, they do have a certain amount of power, and set out to use that influence for a purpose outside of themselves on Shaking the Habitual. The merits of Karin's and Olof's skills as singers, producers, musicians, songwriters, and performers should be mentioned time and again when discussing their new LP, but it all seems secondary to the message they wish to get across. Every time the duo speaks to the press, its members gravitate less toward the years of work that went into their creative process, and focus on the reasons why they decided to take on the task in the first place. The Knife is clearly unhappy with the direction and perversion of Western music and culture throughout history, and quite literally wants to shake us until we can see it for ourselves. Regardless of whether they're successful or not isn't quite the point; what makes Shaking the Habitual so important is that The Knife used an important moment in their own history to truly subvert the hierarchy that both the band and the album exist in. Thankfully, they also wrote some near-perfect music in the process.