You know that feeling when you visit a brand new place for the first time? It’s mysterious, opaque, it’s very hard to differentiate one street from another, you don’t yet have place names or landmarks to help you. It can be disorientating and even, sometimes, a little scary.
Yet weirdly, after a few visits, the place changes. No longer undifferentiated, we can tell one part from another, streets become conduits that lead us where we need to go – in effect, we learn the language of the area.
It’s called psychogeography.
Listening to The Knife’s latest album, Shaking the Habitual, is a lot like this. It’s been a long wait for many people, and with that came a lot of expectation. Fans and critics were waiting to see how this duo would evolve – each of their previous albums being similar in some fundamental way because of The Knife themselves and yet also incredibly different too.
As a Silent Shout-era fan, I was totally surprised to hear Deep Cuts and their eponymous album, particularly because they were fairly “poppy” in comparison to the later album. Silent Shout came to my attention through Keiron Gillen’s comic Phonogram and I was hooked when I realised they had been influenced by Charles Burns’ Black Hole, another comic. Burns’ graphic novel is a dark and paranoid, psychedelic exploration of the American coming-of-age story, and The Knife captured the alienation, paranoia and weirdness in what was to be their most complete and most rewarding album.
The evolution and experimentation that lead to Silent Shout is amplified in surprising ways by Shaking the Habitual. On first listen, the album is completely disorientating – long-droning sounds and a 19-minute one-note song in the middle make it difficult on the ears and brain. Hearing Karin’s voice gives it some much-needed familiarity in the early songs, warmer than on Silent Shout, but rawer too, and the first two singles that open the album, A Tooth for an Eye and Full of Fire are fantastic, full of new organic-souding intruments and playful half and u-turns. The submerged politics of Silent Shout don’t become fully transparent here, but they’re definitely more upfront, dealing with gender politics and the battle between left and right during the utter economic global meltdown we’re in right now. It’s welcome – they suddenly feel muscular and confident in themselves as an entity. They’re not hiding in the shadows infiltrating the mainstream, they’re comfortable owning the space they’ve carved out for themselves.
This confidence leads to the more experimental nature of the music that follows – one minute sonic assaults are followed by strange blank canvases that are interspersed with moments of tunefulness, but on first listen, it’s hard to differentiate them. It’s like walking through a town shrouded in fog, where you might even recognise some of the signs if only you could see them.
If this sounds negative, it’s not. I welcomed the difference between this and Silent Shout – I’d have been disappointed if it was more of the same. I expect The Knife to be strange and surprising, so I enjoyed letting the album grow on me. It’s now this beautiful thing, where the slightly more traditional songs are more defined, but still part of this overall tapestry that takes the listener on a long, hard journey, but one that is always rewarding, and more so as you begin to recognise the route and landmarks.
I’d find it difficult to say this is my favourite album of the year so far (Light Asylum, whose frontwoman Shannon Funchess appears on Shaking the Habitual, might just take that, and I’m really looking forward to hearing Chvrches debut album when it finally appears) but I’ve got a feeling it’s going to outlast the others. I’ve found myself turning off Silent Shout halfway to go back to …Habitual, which is a good sign. And I’m finding that I’m giving more space to this than any other album I can think of over the last couple of years. When I listen to it, I tend to do it through headphones, getting lost in the detail, or lying on the bed with it turned up loud, drifting in and out of ordinary consciousness as I do so…