Power Pointing - By Volume

I wanna piss on the walls of your house! Against Me! - Black Me Out

Power Pointing

Robin Smith on getting lost in the Knife's lecture slides, what they look like in practice, and why "Full of Fire" doesn't have gang-vocals. Author: on June 3, 2013
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The most important question asked of Shaking the Habitual, the new, interrogating album by the Knife, isn’t whether or not it’s a political album. That much is explicit: the album makes politics its topic sentence, encapsulating not just a theme, but a whole ideology. A comic accompanying the album’s release, documenting a summit to end “extreme wealth”, tries to join the dots together, making its imagined crowd recognise that the actions of humans do not exist in a vacuum, but effect a world outside of proximal borders. The Knife see this world, the one where not everyone gets to be the first cause, even if those at the top assume they do. Like the summit in the comic, Shaking the Habitual teaches, and the Knife believe its lesson is of the utmost importance. The question isn’t whether it’s a political move – it’s whether it can bring its politics about.


Like any conversation that asks us to examine our principles, it is an uncomfortable one. Talking with friends about the album’s disarming nature, its politics got a predictable mix of responses, existing as a serious concern to some and a pathetic joke to others. Questions were asked about what the album had to do with gender; laughs were had about bad drone music; people went as far as to rate the album, as if its politics could be quantified. On the other end of the spectrum, the album got an enthralled Tiny Mix Tapes review, rating revoked, which seemed to feel the world rearranged by it. For all the intelligent analyses, though, the jokes told me more – every time someone shied away from the Knife’s attack, they fell into its reactionary trap. To think number quotes are a thing, or to call something a “behemoth” in order to move on from it, are moves of nimble thoughtlessness that Shaking the Habitual itself predicted.

To dismiss a political album is to suggest you understand it enough to move on. In 2007, The Flaming Lips released At War with the Mystics, and its demands on the powers that be (namely: “are you crazy!?”) sent a message of peace like it was coming downward, assuming itself and a suggestible loving crowd. Its downfall was that it got understood; the didactic, obvious delivery, sprinkled with Lips cosmos, was received with a lukewarm shrug and a “we know that”. In this era, where politics exists in front, an album built on them is in danger if it tries to bring us together, to rest on something that can be agreed on. As if giving ideas unspoken purity, a listener can call bullshit on the music they hold true; until Shaking the Habitual, I would consider the last defined-as-such political album I listened to Neil Young’s Living with War,  its story similar to At War with the Mystics. Young is compelled by emotional intentions (he reportedly broke down in tears after reading articles on the Iraq war), and delivers an imagined unification of The People. Its first track was all I needed to know it was political, Young bringing together a group for gang-vocals like he’d invented a new form of petitioning. These kind of assertions are vague, but their clarity lies in the need to feel change coming. It’s always hard to know how that’s going to go down.

Shaking the Habitual is more cryptic than that. Its title is certainly about change, and Karen Dreijer Andersson’s claim that she wanted to go as far as to change the band name suggested that even the core of new politics needs challenging. Where Young wanted to lobby the government, the Knife want to see where everyone else is at. The music is fractured, so long or so abrupt that it comes across as one mesmerising broadcast, shaking us awake. The listener spends the album being graded: on gender, on wealth, or on even broader questions, like whether or not they belong to the category that needs to change. If they don’t know the answer, they stop listening. That’s known.

The music stands in like a pre-ordained litmus test, a reflection not necessarily of how the band feels about its politics (optimistic, motivated), but how they’re approached. The Knife expect me to distance myself from the “otherness” I create on my own. The comic the band supplies to accompany the album couldn’t be more straightforward about its intentions, and that gives them a head start. Its ideas are about society on a turn-around – eliminating wealth and levelling down the ones with it – but they’re also legitimising. They treat those most resistant to a new way of politics, one based in self-help, as just as in need of education as those  considered most impoverished and under-privileged. It’s a comic about a lecture we could attend, with slides and guest speakers and the gift of interaction. But at the same time, it’s a reversal of that iconic wealthy scene. It looks like it’s taking place at an uplifting TED talk.

The crowd of rich people chant things like “I don’t need to buy this” back at the lecturer as if they’ve been badly-wired and have come to experience cultish epiphany. Their revelation is much less coded than the one that exists on Shaking the Habitual, and the ritual seems much more positive. Nevertheless, the album contains the same ideas we call politics. It interconnects a list of problems that shouldn’t be solved only by the “progressive”. The comic has solutions at the ready; society seems blind to them. Intersectionality is still a challenge. So is the passivity of accumulation and the complexities of distribution. And when Shaking the Habitual gets confusing it is because I treat the world in bold bullet points, and try to shake off things one by one. “Challenging the gender roles is VERY IMPORTANT when we work with changing the life conditions for the extremely wealthy”, the comic says. It is a motivational invitation to combine world problems, to tackle them with omniscience rather than find an impersonal way out of every little problem. Notice the white male professor is the one who says this; there is no easy answer.

The music video for “Full of Fire” falls privy to the simplest senses. I’ve heard it called “surreal”, a word that exists in scare quotes because it’s genuinely scary. I don’t have an alternative, but I think to write off the Knife as weird, with purely counter-culture intentions, is a substitution of actual meaning. It shows a fear of being let in, or maybe a fear of never being let in. When I get to the end of the song’s nine minutes, I notice the invitation to the conversation. Andersson suppresses fear with the rapidity of a demand: “let’s talk about gender, baby”. It took nine minutes of a song intensifying, doubling up, and terrifying, to get there.

So maybe a better word is “uncompromising”, or better yet, “challenging”. These words connect the Knife to their audience. They show a sense of being tested, rather than being ignored. Shaking the Habitual is checking. Its breathlessness brings about resistance, or else obsession. Its two leading tracks (released ahead of the album, as if to relieve the burden of a hundred new minutes of music) are undoubtedly the high-watermark in terms of pleasing music, but they also set a precedent for what the album is going to be. Their climaxes are willing but disorientating, hard to concentrate on only because it’s easy to be distracted by something so confrontational. A philosophical interrogation can be too hard to take, or else you can fall in with it.

Looking at that comic, you might think the Knife were blind to their supposed radicalism. This is a reality they want, of a time they fully expect, rather than an upheaval of everything we stand for. If there is a weirdness to Shaking the Habitual, it exists in my reactions, a result of normalised processes and single-mindedness when it comes to humanised problem-solving. Does the listener run away from the world the Knife wants? Do they examine it? It’s hard to know whether it’s us or them spearheading the debate. The intentions are hard to grasp, and their disorientation is done in diverse mechanics. It’s not just a ruthlessly fast album, but also an emptying, sacrificing one, demanding patience. The pitter-patter running through the album’s sonorous, twenty minute drone suggests a scene being fled. Where another album might use a drone to settle things, or re-configure ideas, the Knife use it as another in-out revolving door. They push their candidates out or throw them into the next scene.

When I listen to the harsh aesthetics of Shaking the Habitual, I feel like it’s reading me. It sees its listener, and doesn’t scold them for being dismissive of change, rather for stubbornly reproaching its optimism. “To their credit”, a friend said, “they achieve a lot of pop beauty from their songwriting”. I agree; the pop music is a flashlight, a moment of clarity shining through us, like we’re halfway to the epiphany. The music is disorientating in places, but melodic in others, “too” challenging but at least one can expel it as such. And in an album of a hundred crushing minutes, I have to go and find that. I have to realise that these songs aren’t ‘ahead of their time’. The Knife aren’t advancers; they see the scenes, collect the light and shine it on something better. This album isn’t teaching me how to reach the world of tomorrow; it’s pining for a particular one, now.

I think the Knife succeed in their politics, in the way a band truly can: it is their own to give to us, and their optimism comes not from having people up in arms about it, like an ideological Kickstarter, but instead from them feeling gauged by it. The Knife are involving; they are not rhetorical. Their questions aren’t much on Neil Young’s, because he thinks his troops are already there. And so there are only one or two lines on Shaking the Habitual that could incite a gang-vocal in the vein of his. Fittingly, they’re not questions, nor confrontations; they’re pleas and invitations. “I’m telling you stories, trust me”, Andersson emotes on “A Tooth For an Eye”. It’s the most quotable line of Shaking the Habitual, aware of the difficulty found within accepting the simplicity of a hard truth. It’s a line that says maybe this album of interrogating music isn’t about inciting the fear factor. It’s about why that fear exists. When society has to scrap the bullet points, it has to invent a new way of being. That’s the essence of this band’s cryptic manifesto: admirable, presentist, and challenging. There’s just one more unifying line: “Questions and their answers can take very long”. The challenge is to endure. But it’s also to change.


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