Though I know I used it accordingly and repeatedly during the construction of Slant’s 100 Greatest Dance Songs, the word “academic” doesn’t always have to be treated as a profanity when it comes to electronic music. Cultural studies and the pursuit of knowledge aren’t inherently diametric to metric gratification. Taken together, they can snap the examined life into focus. I should know: I had a friend who was once able to will herself from puking during a car ride because she allowed herself to submit to the repetitive nature of whatever house mix I had in the CD player. I wonder what color her vomit would’ve been had I instead opted for something like Shaking the Habitual. Because I would’ve surely seen that noxious stream spew forth.
Spare to spare, the Knife has always come off just a whisper fashionably remote. But up until now, they haven’t released anything where each beat comes off as yet another footnote. Shaking the Habitual isn’t so much “Shake Your Love” as it is Shakespeare…translated into alien biometric rhythms tapping out iambic pentameter. The songs on Swedish siblings Karin Dreijer Andersson and Olof Dreijer’s long-awaited follow-up to 2006’s Silent Shout may sound like first-world problems, but it’s to their credit that the album is willing to mount a reenactment of the Icarus myth. Do Karin and Olof’s wings get singed? Oh my, yes. Spectacularly.
Of the album’s 90-odd minutes (emphasis on odd), Shaking the Habitual features maybe 16 or 17 that fall into place within a canon that also includes the rubbery robo-funk of “Heartbeats” and the atmospheric devastation of “Silent Shout,” though in most cases those minutes are buried inside much longer songs, consigning anything remotely hooky into the realm of affectation. So even when it sounds a little bit like someone’s repeatedly whispering “Bohannon” in the background of “Stay Out Here,” you know it’s just your ears playing tricks on you, and what they’re probably chanting is the abstract of a structuralist critique of the Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematica.
Still, there are sonic checkpoints that guide less-than-adventurous listeners through the labyrinth. “Raging Lung” features cut-rate “Pass This On” steel-drum rolls, ebbing and flowing against a steely foghorn bassline. “Wrap Your Arms Around Me” unfurls slow-mo noise drama that reminded me, oddly enough, of Mariah Carey’s “Ribbon” redone as a junkie ballad: “I’ve got the urge for penetration.” (I’m sure it’s meant to suggest a duet between Ulysses and the Sirens.) “Stay Out Here” comes on like a demented Willy Wonka refraction of freestyle, and “Ready to Lose” allows sauna handclaps. At its best, the whole album sounds like the Doppler effect. At its worst, it sounds like the aftermath of a mecha-tornado.
As for the lyrics, they may derive from an entire semester’s worth of study, but they’re delivered by some of Karin’s most obtuse vocal performances to date, her sinewy androgynous pipes muscling through slide-whistle octaves fearlessly and tunelessly. To quote The Guardian, “The Patriarchy may well not notice it’s being challenged.” Whatever efficacious intent may have been poured into the musique concréte of “Fracking Fluid Injection,” in which Tibetan singing bowls are seemingly subjected to slow-rolling rape by spectral dental drills, in part excuses its own ideological inverse. If the land made sounds this horrifying when it yielded to corporate ravaging, there would be no need for ecological horror documentaries to tack on admonishing music scores. The album’s other centerpiece whatsit is the 19-minute “Old Dreams Waiting to Be Realized,” which would be the album’s “Revolution 9” were this not an entire album of the song. The experience of listening to it is akin to the experience of listening to the whole album straight. You fear you’re about to lose to Ondine’s curse.