Ever since the Scala and Kolancy Brothers's stunning choral rendition of "Heartbeats" made the blog rounds back in 2007, it has been clear that the Knife's best compositions boast a classically minded formalism. The often obtuse dance duo puts that assertion to the test on Tomorrow, In a Year, an ambitious double-album originally commissioned by the performance troupe Hotel Pro Forma for their opera based upon the life of Charles Darwin. The Knife's previous records, particularly 2007's Silent Shout, impressed as much for their thematic depth as for their technical skill, but Tomorrow pushes both of those aspects of their work to even greater accomplishment.
The scope of the project, which considers both the literal aspects of Darwin's work and the personal experiences and historical contexts that informed his research and writing, is academic in its breadth. On the Origin of Species and the concepts of natural selection and evolutionary science are well accounted for in tracks like "Epochs" and "Seeds," but surprising details, such as Darwin's personal letters to his daughter Anne, lend an immediate sense of humanity to the project. "Ebb Tide Explorer" brings an authentic first-person perspective to what would be considered fieldwork. The focus of that fieldwork, which included a considerable amount of ornithology, makes the Knife an ideal act to tackle such heady subjects. While their bird fetish has largely amounted to quirk in their previous projects, it finds a more purposeful outlet on Tomorrow. Standouts "Variation of Birds" and the epic-length "Colouring of Pigeons" both approach the concept of change over time from thematic and structural angles.
That overall structure—the album works as a proper, if unconventional, opera—marks an even more dramatic departure for the Knife. Siblings Olof Dreijer and Karin Dreijer Anderssen have challenged and ultimately redefined the conventions of modern dance music in their joint outings as the Knife and in Karin's equally impressive solo work as Fever Ray. But the requirements of opera dictated that the siblings learn a new musical language, even as they gave that language their own peculiar grammar and inflections. The album's lengthy instrumental passages, which seamlessly combine "found" sounds with the act's trademark electronic notes, are just as critical to the project's overall narrative as are the vocal performances. Working with opera singer Kristina Wahlin, actress Laerke Winther, and pop singer Jonathan Johannson for the bulk of the vocal turns, the Dreijer siblings made the album a truly collaborative project. Wahlin, in particular, impresses for the clarity of her mezzo-soprano and the control she displays in the tricky melodic runs on "Colouring."
Multi-instrumentalists, vocalists, and producers Mt. Sims and Planningtorock also do some heavy lifting here, with distinctive contributions that ground the Knife's off-kilter approach to rhythm in instruments that are perhaps more familiar to the opera audience. With a sonic palette that is endlessly complex and varied, and a take on opera that balances respect and irreverence for expectations, Tomorrow stands as a singular accomplishment of composition and performance.
The question that hangs over the project, then, is whether or not it works on a level other than that of a clinical academic remove. That the very nature of the album is pretentious is not the issue. Instead, it's whether or not the Knife and their cohorts have produced something that is successful as a classical work, pop music, or both. I won't pretend to have qualified opinions of opera, but early reviews of the theatrical performance of Tomorrow have been favorable, pointing to the groundbreaking structure and style of the music.
As pop, the results are more of a mixed bag. "Seeds" opens with the same canned backbeat as Kylie Minogue's "Boombox" before launching into an unexpected, delicate instrumental break that would fit perfectly into Pantha du Prince's recent Black Noise. And "Colouring" is just begging to be snatched up by a forward-thinking remixer. The instrumental cuts, however, don't stand on their own merits quite as well. The ambient sounds of "Tumult" work in context of the overall narrative, but it lacks the same purpose when approached in isolation. The Knife has always been difficult, but Tomorrow raises legitimate questions about how far the duo can push the limits of what is considered accessible pop music. A truly revolutionary piece of work, the album is also an awfully hard sell that begs for an "even for the Knife" qualifier.