Sunday, September 29, 2013

The Knife: Shaking the Habitual (2013)


Listening to the Knife is akin to willfully subjecting yourself to something that isn't really fun but you feel sort of an obligation to go through with it, maybe for the satisfaction you'll feel afterward -- like the hardest level in a video game, or a first date. The Dreijer siblings' political leanings are a little heady for me and sit beyond my dim understanding of the outside world (only a slight exaggeration, people) but their hearts seem to be in the right place, and their stance on the melding of corporate conglomeration and pop music is certainly righteous. Spending time with their music just proves how little ideology can finally matter in appreciation of a band. They could be fascist stand-up comedians for all that it matters for our purposes here in actually reviewing this goofy, vastly overlong record. It's full of ideas and dense, but I can't find a proper way into the musical portion of this satirical media empire (one that made its fortune by, no sense of irony here, lending a song to a Sony ad).

"A Tooth for an Eye" and "Full of Fire," our two opening cuts, are chaos of the right sort, evocative of the Rapture or Crystal Castles with a filthy, relentless pulsating undercurrent. You may or may not appreciate the education film vibe of the watery little synth trills and flute tones, and the entire record that follows is nothing if not playful. But even at its bounciest, it's the dance music of guilt and frequently undercuts its own appeal, more than likely on purpose. Sometimes I love that sort of thing, sometimes I don't; when I ask why, the answers can take very lonnnng but it's probably a question of how interesting the self-imposed bumps and fuckups are, and kinda stupid voice effects fall into the category of "unjustifiably irritating." And for nine minutes, fuck that. "Full of Fire" is the sneak preview of how most of the sequence here is going to run, bumping up slightly with outside influences on "Without You My Life Would Be Boring," a sort of Kelly Clarkson-fronting-Art of Noise art installation with a stronger chorus and whinier sounds, but at its worst it suggests the Bee Gees covering something from Vespertine.

Most of the Knife's songs are too long. Maybe that's intended as a sort of fuck-off maneuver, but with Justin Timberlake well on the way to redefining "epic" dance music in his own image, they have to lump up and kill their potentially crafty mood record with a lot of semi-ambient meanderings, one of which is entitled "Fracking Fluid Injection" because of course it is. They can't be tender without being menacing, they can't annoy us without also putting us to sleep with the basically silent sprawl of the nineteen-minute "Old Dreams Waiting to Be Realized," pretty much a reenactment of the soundtrack of 2001 with music and dialogue both removed, thus about as dull a time as I've ever had listening to recorded music (and I sat through it twice and was not paid).

Mood albums are fine, by the way, but they typically need a few songs on the back half to sustain properly. Each cut here can be reduced so easily to a quick idea: here's paranoid disco Ben E. King, here's some jittery tomfoolery, good grief here's more yet. None of the compositions or... arid little "grooves" can sustain for as long as their authors seem to think. But Shaking the Habitual is just a platform for the stuff these two really care about, and if some people have the patience for it, they will enjoy the souvenir. If (like me) your patience is tried not just by The 20/20 Experience but This Is Happening, best to wait for the movie, the TV special, the interactive CD-ROM.

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