In the current music world, an artist’s anonymity correlates directly to his or her coolness. In a business that allows for artist-audience intimacy at unprecedented levels, an artist’s ability to somehow leverage social media for the purposes of mystery rather than connection only perplexes and fascinates a fanbase more. The Knife have been advocates of such mystery for years now. Donning masks on stage, giving away little in terms of recording details, and seemingly disappearing for years on end, the duo of Karin Dreijer Anderrson and Olof Dreijer appear to embrace this anonymity for political and social reasons rather than to fit some distant, narcotics-soaked aesthetic (see: The Weeknd). In fact, the political awareness of The Knife pervades just about every artistic choice they make on Shaking the Habitual. The album’s name itself is drawn from the writings of French philosopher Michel Foucault, who dealt largely in the exploration of powerful systems and their ability to control the minds of the weak. Such weighty topics make for an imposing 98-minute album that is at times engrossing and almost always exhausting.
Shaking the Habitual opens with “Tooth for an Eye,” one of the album’s few moments that is at all reminiscent of The Knife’s previous electronic work. Opening gradually and eventually breaking into an infectious West African drum rhythm, the song is to be cherished, as it is one of the last moments on the album that even attempts to ingratiate itself to the listener. “Full of Fire” is a nine-minute tour de force that builds and builds and builds, all the while showcasing some of the album’s most clever and effective songwriting. This one-two punch makes for a fairly intriguing opening fifteen minutes. Yet, as the album goes on, The Knife begins to distance themselves from anything resembling structured electronic music. Moments of sprawling songs like “A Cherry on Top” and “Fracking Fluid Injection” approach ambient, intriguing places, yet such moments are fleeting. The long stretches of silence take you out of the music by forcing you to realize that you are in fact listening to nothing. While such tracks may be effective and get the point across, they are also truly frustrating and brought to unnecessarily extreme, anti-pop proportions.
People waited years for The Knife to return and give us some more of the haunting, twisted quasi-dance music that made 2006’s Silent Shout a classic. What Shaking the Habitual offers is either bold and ambitious or pretentious and utterly infuriating. For the Dreijers, Shaking the Habitual may very well be a triumph, as they convey their political messages fairly well. In that sense, mission accomplished. Much of the album is appropriately hard to love and therefore impossible to fit into the colossal capitalist paradigm of modern music. This may work for the band’s purposes, but does it work for ours? For some, accomplishing such a visceral musical feat may be enough. But anyone seeking an experience that is at all satisfying may want to look elsewhere.