The Knife is a duo comprised of brother and sister Olof Dreijer and Karin Dreijer Andersson, the later of which has released some glorious electro-pop during recent years under the name Fever Ray. Shaking the Habitual is their first proper album of new material since 2006’s Silent Shout.
It’s difficult to put my thoughts about The Knife into words. Their songs honestly defy all genre distinctions. You can’t put them into any one category or mold and say that it fits because none of them truly do. They’re so “out there” that Radiohead’s more recent work seems like perfectly normal pop by comparison. If Tower Records was still around I reckon they’d put The Knife’s CDs in the avant garde section. But it’s probably for the best that Tower crumbled because most of that avant garde music was terrible. A guy could slap a bucket for twenty minutes and release it on CD and Tower would carry it in their avant garde section. Sure, those releases defied genre distinctions, and so I suppose they deserved a home there, but so much more thought has been put into The Knife’s music than I imagine went into most of those releases.
Shaking the Habitual consists of 13 tracks that come to a total of a whopping 90 minutes. Suffice to say that it’s a lot to take in. But then The Knife’s songs are always a lot to take in. Some of them do seemingly illogical things musically that are a lot to digest, such as the instrumental “A Cherry on Top,” a percussion-less song which starts off with fluttering noise and creepy droning ambient sounds. As it progresses — for nearly nine minutes — the sounds intensify and gradually get scarier. It’s like listening to lost score from The Shining; it practically leaves one gasping for air. Fortunately, the song that follows, “Without You My Life Would Be Boring,” has lots and lots of percussion and Karin’s unique vocals, which are difficult to understand at times, and impossible at others, as they twist and bend in various directions like the mind of someone having a psychotic break.
The easiest song to get into here is probably “Full of Fire.” It’s just over nine minutes long, but thankfully Justin Timberlake has been busy getting the world accustomed to such lengthy songs. Not that “Full of Fire” is nearly as structured as his material. This might be The Knife’s most structured song on hand, but it’s still pretty… weird. “Questions and the answers can take very long,” Karin sings, both lamenting and begging you to open up your mind and think. But what does she want you to ponder? That’s the thing about The Knife — their music fills your mind with wonder, making you want to think, or at least forcing you to do so, but it rarely tells you what to actually think about. You just listen and listen and try to wrap your head around what they’re doing. But you’re rarely able to. The second you think you have a song pegged down they go and drastically change the tempo or add some bizarre squeaking noises that could very well be coming from a dog’s toy. The Knife will and do sample and loop just about anything. If a sound intrigues them, then you can be damn sure they’re going to use it to intrigue you. Or scare you. The Knife seem to thrive on producing anxiety-inducting songs, especially on this album. And that’s what Shaking the Habitual ultimately is — a series of scary thrill rides. Listening to it is like going to the amusement park and riding all of the rollercoasters and other frightening rides without using the seatbelts. You genuinely feel like you just might fall off of the ride to your death at any given moment. It certainly commands your full attention — especially as Karin begs “you follow me” over and over again during “Stay Out Here” — and that’s downright fascinating, but sometimes it’s enough to have you clawing for your Ativan.