By Venus Rittenberg, Staff Writer
[Rabid Records; 2013]
Key tracks: “Full of Fire”, “Without You My Life Would Be Boring”, and “Raging Lung”
My previous column, Punk’d, focused on, as you could probably assume, punk music. When talking about punk music, it’s pretty much a guarantee that politics are going to come up.
The last two issues of my column covered the albums WIDE AWAAAAAKE! by Parquet Courts and WORRY. by Jeff Rosenstock, both of which are extremely political, covering issues ranging from systemic racism to the faults of capitalism.
In contrast, this column will focus on experimental music, spanning a variety of genres and eras. The title is derived from the Xiu Xiu song “20,000 Deaths for Eidelyn Gonzales, 20,000 Deaths for Jamie Peterson” off their seminal sophomore album, A Promise. I decided to abandon my previous column and start this one due to the way my music taste evolved throughout 2020 and 2021. I won’t get into my whole journey into experimental music and how my affinity for it began, but over the past year and a half, I found my taste shifting away from punk and more towards experimental. I was drawn to experimental music for a variety of reasons, but one definitive aspect was that I found that a lot of experimental artists were willing to do and say things with their music that many other artists were not.
By no means is Shaking The Habitual a punk album. It blends a variety of genres, none of which are punk/post punk. It mainly consists of synthpop with industrial influences, and at times it dips into dark ambient. However, like WIDE AWAAAAAKE! and WORRY., it is explicitly political in its focus on socialism, as well as feminist and queer theory. Lead singer Karin Dreijer is nonbinary and brings their perspective on the patriarchy (particularly structures of gender), the nuclear family and feminism, heavily praising solidarity and collectivism.
It is also worth noting that Shaking The Habitual is both The Knife’s first album since 2006, and their final. Their previous album, Silent Shout, saw critical and commercial success for the duo and focused on a darker side of synthpop (this sound would go on to influence many synthpop acts of the 2010s, such as CHVRCHES and Purity Ring). Silent Shout also featured rather political lyrics, but this aspect is often overlooked when discussing the album. Perhaps the reason the radical politics received more attention on Shaking The Habitual has to do with the way the album was presented; all of the artwork and marketing for the release made sure to emphasize the political views of the album. The lyrics on Shaking The Habitual are also very dense and require deeper thought to interpret. By writing lyrics that require more attention, more thought is put into them and their implications by a listener, resulting in a more direct relation between the lyrical themes and the album than Silent Shout had.
Aside from the lyrical similarities, Silent Shout and Shaking The Habitual have little in common. Shaking The Habitual is much more experimental and ambient, and even at times has heavy influence from more tribal styles of music, particularly in the drumming (the album makes use of maracas!). Shaking The Habitual is also much longer than The Knife’s previous endeavors; it is a double LP clocking in at over an hour and a half.
Disc 1 is seven songs, including a short interlude and a 20 minute ambient piece closing out the disc. The album opens with “A Tooth for an Eye”, with its first verse speaking on income equality, partially through the use of a metaphor comparing the contemporary, late-capitalist society the Western world finds itself in today, to the decline of the Roman Empire. The lyrics continue on in a political manner, criticizing the selfishness and greed of capitalist governments and corporations. Even still, perhaps the most interesting thing about this song is the music. The drums and synths have a very unique feel, creating an almost ritualistic atmosphere that only increases when Karin starts singing. Their voice has a very distinct quality to it that compliments the atmosphere
The second track on the album is “Full of Fire,” a nearly 10 minute anti-patriarchal anthem. The first two stanzas of the song are a mere repetition of each other, but the third stanza is where things begin to get interesting.
“Of all the guys and the signori [Italian for a plural sir/mr.] / who will write my story / get the picture, they get glory / who looks after my story? / all the guys and the signori / telling another false story,” Karin sings in an almost droning tone. They are raising the point of how nearly all of history is told from the male perspective, and the parts that are written by or about women are falsified, diminished and discredited. Following this stanza, Karin continues in their droning manner repeating, “liberals give me a nerve itch,” criticizing liberals for not being progressive enough in their stances and for supporting imperialism and capitalism (whether intentionally or unintentionally).
The last part of “Full of Fire” references Salt N Pepa’s 1991 hit, “Let’s Talk About Sex”, Karin sings, “Let’s talk about gender baby / let’s talk about you and me”, repeated in a robotic voice as the song fizzles out. This verse summarizes the message of the entire track — essentially a TLDR for the lengthy song — explaining how significant it is to Karin to discuss gender and the patriarchy with the people around them.
Following after the explosive and anthemic “Full of Fire” are two back-to-back tracks that return to the ritualistic and tribal — yet still undeniably modern and industrial — synthpop stylings of the opener, “A Tooth for an Eye.” “Without You My Life Would Be Boring” and “Wrap Your Arms Around Me” both explore the faults of the nuclear family, with the latter being more explicit in its criticisms.
“Without You My Life Would Be Boring”, almost masquerades as a “traditional” love song (though the idea of calling anything about this album ‘traditional’ is laughable). The song is also as close to a synthpop hit as Shaking The Habitual gets, which pays off well.
Following these songs is a brief interlude and then the gargantuan 20 minute ambient piece, “Old Dreams Waiting to Be Realized.” The title comes from a Swedish article praising the “dreams” of radical thinkers (mainly Karl Marx), and how we as a society are still waiting to implement their ideals.
“Raging Lung” kicks off disc 2 in a bold way. Although it’s not unlike the other tracks on the album, the first two songs on disc 1 had clear pop tendencies. “Raging Lung” is slow and rolling as it continues to build upon the tribal sensibilities established on the first disc. This track pays tribute to punk gods Fugazi, by quoting “The Blueprint” on the chorus, “what a difference / a little difference would make.” These lines repeat at the end of the chorus, referring to how even a little resistance from the working class can help to bring down corporations.
“Raging Lung” is followed by two instrumental tracks before the behemoth, “Stay Out Here.” The longest song on the album — excluding “Old Dreams”– “Stay Out Here” demands attention. It has two features from Emily Roysdon and Shannon Funchess, both of whom contribute wonderful vocals that complement Karin’s vocals in a [insert adjective] way. The song features icy synths and tribal percussion, much like rest of the album, but feels even darker and more sinister than the other tracks. It is quite possibly the most out-there song on the album, and yet with its more consistent synth melodies, it may also be one of the more digestible tracks on disk 2.
Finally, the hour-and-a-half oedipal journey comes to an end with “Ready to Lose”, an excellent closing track that ties up the ideas of the album. This track asserts that for the world to progress, the wealthy must surrender their wealth for the sake of equality, and they must be “ready to lose”. The chorus, “ready, ready to lose a privilege” is quite literal, the wealthy must sacrifice their privileges so that everyone can live comfortably in a better world. The album closes with the lines “an ongoing habit / a transfer of possessions / ready, ready to lose a privilege / a final sequence / an end to succession”, which truly ties up the album quite well, considering all the themes.
Shaking The Habitual presents an amazing and terrifying final turn for The Knife, and it is truly an album for the books. It is still incredibly unique and fascinating, its lyricism is profound and well written, and it remains feeling very fresh eight years later. Although Shaking The Habitual often ranks below Silent Shout in discourse (understandably so, as it is the much weirder cousin) its perplexing oddness is what I find so endearing about it, and makes it easily my favorite project from the duo.