The Knife wants us to shake the habitual, in every sense: gender, wealth, privilege, and album length. Their third studio album and the first in seven years, Shaking The Habitual is an uncompromising political and artistic manifesto that most bands don't have the talent - let alone the guts - to pull off. The sincerity is overwhelming. Swedish siblings Karin Dreijer Andersson and Olaf Dreijer have taken their experimental sound, already established and acclaimed in Deep Cuts (2003) and Silent Shout (2006) to its logical conclusion: a ninety-eight-minute frenzy, an aural assault that, if you can get through it, is sure to shake you to the core.
This is not a band to quietly bemoan a political problem: they start an all-out musical riot. "A Tooth For An Eye" opens the album, introducing the theme of fiction in political storytelling (one that runs throughout), and the soundscape bursts like firecrackers around your ears, demanding attention. "Full of Fire," the first song we heard off the new album, was accompanied by a video so intense that we haven't been able to separate it from the song ever since. It remains a powerful statement about gender politics, at once both sexy and menacing, thumping with severity and buzzing with the background of a hateful world. The paradox of the strained pleading of Karin's natural voice and the android growl of her distorted, croaking counterpart has always sent chills down our spines, and the seething intensity of these tracks only strengthens these sensations. "A Cherry On Top" mixes wavering organ with backward electronic groans, ethereal autoharp, and inscrutable lyrics about dessert to create the most ominous ambient music we've heard in a while.
The minimalist pace and nine-minute length of "A Cherry On Top" creates a space to breathe before the next two songs, and it's a good thing, too, because they might be two of the greatest songs The Knife has ever recorded. "Without You My Life Would Be Boring" has the closest thing to a hook you will find on this record, and its unstoppable drumming, crazed flutes, and ever-shifting layers make ten minutes feel like three. "I think we can make it / But I think that we can't / Shaking the habitual really took time / We are laughing at the future / To find out the past / I'm holding on forever / That I'll be forever last." Karin has grabbed hold of our hand to take us on a tour of a world living in its own fantasy, a world that is damning itself. It's terrifying, yet we can't look away.
A bit of Fever Ray seeps over into the next masterpiece, "Wrap Your Arms Around Me." It sounds like something from Kid A covered by Portishead and then put through a shredder. Or perhaps it sounds like "Kashmir" sung by horny aliens. Either way, its guttural hums and drips punctuated by crashing percussion feel like some morbid desert ceremony, and the lyrics' dark sensuality complete the picture, rhyming "penetration" with "red carnation" and returning to the title refrain like a holy chant.
"Old Dreams Waiting To Be Realized" is twenty minutes of noise, and no amount of dressing it up will change that. Yes, it emphasizes several themes of this record, including the departure from comfort and force-fed culture, but that doesn't change the fact that this would feel like a more solid album without it. It is worth listening to during the full-album experience, but probably will not merit a re-listen for most people. Moving on.
What will be released as "Disc Two" of the record splinters into some scary territory, both politically and musically. "Raging Lung" attacks the grossly unjust distribution of wealth in the world with mournful sensitivity and the band's signature otherworldly, distorted madness. Despite its heavy subject matter, it feels like the most subdued track on the album, an interesting decision that actually drives its message home. "Networking" is jittery, grimy, and will either move you to your feet or make you feel oddly nauseated (or a little bit of both). "Stay Out Here" seem to be a portrait of the dystopian future of modern commerce, with the focus on the ominous walking of executives. "You have the most original way of putting one foot in front of the other / One foot yours, one mine / Stay out here / It is happening." "Fracking Fluid Injection" is mostly Karin saying "Ow" and headache-inducing scratching sounds, so it might actually be the most literal song on the whole record. "Ready To Lose" is an apt final statement, declaring that loss is not a thing to be feared, that loss of privilege and even loss of blood can mean sharing it with someone who needs it.
Political albums can feel sanctimonious and musically uninspired, and third albums can be lackluster, but I believe that's why this is called Shaking The Habitual. It's been a long damn time since music that tackles current affairs felt so vital, so urgent, and so fucking good. If you're a fan of their first (and very accessible by comparison) records, have no fear: you will find plenty of danceable, catchy, bat-shit insane music that will become instantly classic and mind-meltingly exciting. You may just have to skip around a bit.