Friday, August 2, 2013

album review: 'shaking the habitual' by the knife (RETRO REVIEW)

Consider, if you will, minimalism.

Now you might think, with my general appreciation for acts like Meat Loaf and Nightwish and Blind Guardian and The Killers and Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, that I tend to favour music that's overblown, overwrought, and generally made with a larger 'scope' in mind. And I won't lie that I do like songs in this vein more often than not - hell, I'll give a pass to Andrew W.K. for his maximalist aesthetic, even though his lyrics tend to have less substance than an empty bucket made of air. And it's not surprising that a lot of critics tend to snub acts that go for broke with a lack of abandon and complete sincerity - these acts are often deemed lowbrow or pandering to baser sensibilities. And sure, in some cases that is definitely the case, but I'd argue there's a method to writing that hyperbolic material well (the difference, for example, between Fall Out Boy's Folie A Deux and their newest album Save Rock and Roll, an album I like less and less as a cohesive whole every time I listen to it).

Likewise, minimalism often shares a similar differentiation of quality, but the distinction of being able to accomplish this aesthetic is a little subtler than its louder counterpart (the line of sincerity tends to be more sharply defined at higher volumes). Minimalism typically works through reduction, scaling back certain elements in order to draw attention and emphasis to others, or in order to create an atmosphere of emptiness and space. One of the reasons Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds succeeded so brilliantly this year with Push The Sky Away is because he utilized the minimalist style to both create a foreboding, expansive atmosphere and to draw attention to the oblique lyrics. It was no surprise that some critics panned the album in response, especially considering Nick Cave spent so much of his career overwhelming the senses that people considered his brand of minimalism dull. In other words, they completely missed the point.

Now that's not to say minimalism can't be done badly. On the contrary, it can be argued that minimalist efforts often have a much greater chance of failure than those that simply choose to go for broke on all cylinders. I've spoken before of my distaste for music in the 'white guy with acoustic guitar' or 'white chick with piano' vein, and their poor usage of minimalism is often the reason why. In choosing to pull back and limit their instrumentation, they draw much tighter attention to the singer and the lyrics, and the swathe of trite, pretentious garbage that spews forth is evidence enough that these singer-songwriters just don't have anything worth saying. 

And more often than not, too much minimalist material fails simply because the musical atmosphere lacks texture and thus gets very boring very fast. Let's take James Blake's Overgrown as an example where the minimalism worked - but it only worked because Blake's careful control of the atmosphere and soulful delivery nailed the tricky balance between atmospheric and intimate. And it's a tough balance to nail - I can think of more than a few albums that don't manage to hit that sweet spot, particularly in electronica and modern hip-hop. 

So with all of that in mind, let's talk about the Swedish electronica duo The Knife, a band that takes electronic minimalism and turns it into something else entirely.

Now I'll admit right out of the gate that The Knife had a bit of a steep road to climb with me, as electronica acts (particularly those heralded by Pitchfork and music critics and pretty much only them) that tend towards tight, carefully positioned beats aren't normally my thing. And coupled with Karin Dreijer Andersson's borderline intolerable singing (she reminds me of a cross between Joanna Newsom and a screechier Tegan Quin) and the duo's tendency towards oblique, barely comprehensible lyrics, I was fairly certain this band would wear out their welcome faster than ever. And really, if I was looking to find a band with little-to-no mainstream appeal, the kind that would brand me as a hipster instantly upon mention, The Knife would leap to the top of my list. They certainly weren't doing anything to make themselves accessible or radio-friendly, that's for damn sure.

And yet, going through their discography (particularly their 2006 album Silent Shout), I started to understand the appeal of The Knife. Despite the clipped, clattering beats at the very top of the mix, the band had an expansive sound that sucked me in more often than not. The juxtaposition between Andersson's vocals and those her partner Olof Dreijer's did a fair amount to win me over (although the occasionally off-tune screeching got intolerable more than once). But what ultimately won me over were the lyrics - there's a real bleak darkness and unsettling atmosphere to their poetry that has flavour and real personality, and while I wouldn't call them technically strong lyricists, they are smart enough to convey some potent material. Yes, they've made mistakes - sometimes big ones - but overall, their good material has tended to outweigh the bad (with 'Marble House' being the immediately recognizable standout from Silent Shout and a goddamn impressive song).

So when I heard that the act was, again, accruing critical acclaim from critics and Pitchfork alike for their new album, I was interested. After numerous solo ventures, The Knife had finally reunited for their first venture on their own in seven years. How did it turn out?

Youtube review after the jump

Oh boy, this is going to take some explanation. Not only is The Knife's Shaking The Habitual thought-provoking in a way I didn't quite expect, it's also one of the few albums I know for which I'll have significant difficulty explaining my opinion. Because let me make this absolutely clear: there are a lot of elements on Shaking The Habitual that are compelling, intriguing, and almost inspired - but they are fatally crippled by a series of artistic decisions that ultimately break the album for me.

Let me start by stating that on their own, a number of the components that went into this album are quite strong. The Knife has always had a gift for atmosphere and ambience, and they do a shockingly good job cultivating that atmosphere on this album. Much like The Flaming Lips' album The Terror (that also came out this year), the album is designed to feel unsettling and eerie, but while The Flaming Lips utilized overdubs and a very dense mix with half-heard vocals, The Knife opts for a minimalist approach that works surprisingly well, particularly on songs like 'Old Dreams Waiting To Be Realized'. In fact, I'd make the argument that with only one exception (which I'll get to), The Knife's ambient tracks are easily the best on the album - they feel expansive and rich and do an effective job cultivating the underlying theme of isolation. And considering some of these tracks go on for an exceptionally long time, it's impressive that they can still remain compelling.

But even most of the louder, more richly produced tracks have a lot to offer. There's a lot of variety in the instrumentation and the majority of the rhythms sound unique and polished. And like always, the production is top of the line, with every piece of the mix carefully highlighted. It's clear that many of the tracks were overstuffed with instrumental ideas that some artists would have built entire albums around, and The Knife do an excellent job balancing it out. And while I have never been a fan of Andersson's vocals, most of the time she does quite well here. No, there is no track on this album that has the single potential or stands out like 'Marble House', but she's less grating than she normally can be.

And you know, if the album solely stuck to these elements, I'd definitely understand the shower of critical praise Shaking The Habitual has been getting. However, the problems begin to come up as soon as you start digging into the lyrics and thematic elements The Knife are attempting to incorporate. Because, you see, Shaking The Habitual isn't just your standard moody electronica album - it's a political album with a message.

Now, I don't have issues with political albums - one of my favourite bands of all time is the anarcho-punk collective widely known as Chumbawamba, for god's sake - and I'll even argue that with few exceptions, The Knife present a good message. It's nothing all that original, mind - it's your basic socialist critique of family values, commercialism, and so forth - but it's well-thought out and coherent and generally agreeable if you read through the lyrics. And you know, I agree with the majority of the principles The Knife are presenting, and you can never say that the band is without dour, humourless sincerity in putting forward their message.

But here's where we immediately run into my first problem. Notice that I said that when reading the lyrics, the concepts are agreeable. This is because when combined with the music, the tonal mishmash becomes insufferable, mostly because while their instrumentation contains subtlety, their vocals and lyrics definitely don't. I can't help but feel that a defter touch, perhaps a more subdued delivery or more refined lyrics, could have made their message slightly more palatable.

But The Knife are not attempting to be palatable in any way, shape, or form - indeed, it's an underlying theme of the album, in that in the disruption of the established order, those who have benefited from it are going to suffer (at the very least confusion, likely far worse). It's a defiantly anti-commercial album, which, again, isn't something for which I normally take issue. However, in the refusal to engage with the audience, it makes The Knife come across as haughty and arrogant, and not in the least bit populist. And for a message album, that is a critical error in their approach, and also seems to run contrary to their own ideology - instead of uniting with the people, The Knife come across as above them, only deigning to interact with humanity if they are as 'enlightened' as they are.

In comparison, let's talk about Chumbawamba, a band with politics far to the left of my own, but I'm still a huge fan of their material because it is actively populist. The band works very hard to stand with the people, identifying with their struggles, and keeping the political message grounded in simple, accessible lyrics and tunes. And yet, they still manage to preserve the nuance in their arguments and cleverly balance it with humour to make it palatable (a lesson Rage Against The Machine never learned). In short, to co-opt an overused phrase from 2011, they are the 99%.

The Knife, on the other hand, does not deign to stoop to our level. By making the music alternatively harsh or gloriously indulgent, the lyrics difficult to parse out, and the message so humourless and dour (to say nothing of combatative), they are raising barriers to entry and completely voiding any populist spirit that would make their message infinitely more accessible. It's one thing to emphasize your theme that change and breaking the system can cause unsteadiness, but it's entirely another thing for that emphasis to be applied to your own audience as well.

And yet, I'd be willing to forgive all of that if the message was delivered in a precise, cutting, intelligent manner - and here's where I must raise the final major problem with this album, a problem I've mentioned a few times before: there is very little, if any, subtlety in the delivery of said message. The absolute worst example of this is 'Fracking Fluid Injection', which from the title is an obvious critique of fracking, a method of extracting oil and natural gas that can have detrimental environmental impacts. Okay, fine, that's an interesting topic to build a song around. And do you want to know how The Knife conveys their disapproval for this process?

I'll tell you how. They write a wordless, nine minute song that only contains roughly two sounds: the squeal of an oil valve, and the squeal of someone trying to make noise through what seems like a gag.

How goddamn trite. I'm reminded of the movie Monsters directed by Gareth Edwards, where he tried to make the audience care about his 'persecuted' aliens by having them make whale noises. Not only is the message thuddingly obvious - industry is stifling voices speaking out against fracking because of money - The Knife apparently thought their audience was so dense that they needed to stretch out this track for almost ten minutes, without crescendo or instrumental evolution in the slightest. And the infuriating thing is that this condescension is all over the album, particularly on 'Without You My Life Would Be Boring', a heinously grating track punctuated by baby squeals on multiple registers. Forget nuance, The Knife clearly feel that they're lecturing a hostile audience of children that need to be taught the basics of queer theory, socialism, and environmentalism!

But here's the true irony: since The Knife don't have that populist streak and made such a defiantly anti-commercial album, the average listener of this album is often going to be as informed - if not moreso - about these issues which The Knife presume to be experts, and the people The Knife want to harangue are never going to ever pick up the album, and certainly won't listen long enough to get the message! And in the end, I'm stuck with an album that wants to teach me something I already know and have long ago accepted with the ponderous weight and acrid contempt of a radical politician hammering out talking points. I'm reminded of The Newsroom at its absolute worst - a show that wants to change discourse in the media, but instead becomes an echo chamber that occasionally loses that necessary context and nuance to work properly.

And really, that's a damn shame, because there's a lot of things on Shaking The Habitual that I really like. The instrumentation is varied and compelling, the atmosphere is dense and interesting, hell, even the lyrics and ideas and theme are agreeable and not terribly presented. But the combination of all three here is critically flawed and it seriously rubbed me the wrong way. If you're the sort of listener who doesn't care about lyrical cohesion or likes this sort of sound or is love with the message, you'll probably like this album enough if you're a fan of The Knife - if you're in the audience for this material, this album is easy enough to appreciate (although The Knife don't quite make it easy on you). Otherwise...

I'm sorry, but in good conscience, I have a hard time recommending this album. Shaking The Habitual may be an intriguing album, but it's overstuffed with ego and condescension, and lacks the potence of message or instrumental populism to make it work. I'd try a little tenderness next time - or at the very least, some humility.

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