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Shaken-Up: The Top Ten Songs by The Knife

TK

On the tour for Shaking the Habitual, their fourth and apparently final album, The Knife were not The Knife. Rather, The Knife were not just The Knife. There were about a dozen performers on stage at any given time, and while Karin and Olof Dreijer were two of those performers, it was unclear which two. Karin’s singular voice, icy and metallic, came from many different mouths; the performers lip synced as often as they sang live, and when they sang live it was never just one person. Watching the Live at Terminal 5 concert film, the avant-garde three card monte was distracting at first (is that Karin? Is that Olof? Or is that Karin?), but in time you realized their point: it simply didn’t matter who was who.

Identity has always been a key theme in The Knife’s work (as with Karin’s solo output as Fever Ray, which will get its own Top 10 list eventually.) The Dreijer siblings redefined their own identity with Silent Shout, which transformed them from an idiosyncratic indie pop duo into haunted, gothic wraiths. They were preoccupied with gender politics, how binaries trap people and how they can be transcended. They were keenly aware of their privileged identities as white people from a prosperous country, and used their platform to critique income inequality and the climate crisis. And as the Shaking the Habitual tour showed, they knew when to step away from their identities altogether.

Karin and Olof cultivated mystery from the start, with press-shy behavior and evocative masks, but their music spoke for itself. From Silent Shout on, their music was dense, eerie, and atmospheric; it sounded like synthpop and techno that lived so deep in a cave it evolved in grotesque, fascinating ways. Karin’s voice was frequently pitch-shifted to squealing highs or groaning lows, but their normal voice was uncanny enough: playful yet sinister, with a serrated edge. It was difficult to imagine their music being created in a studio, rather than grown like moss on rocks and trees. Their sound has been frequently imitated but never quite replicated; although they celebrated communalism, their identities were theirs and theirs alone.

10. “Without You My Life Would Be Boring” (from Shaking the Habitual)

The long-anticipated follow-up to Silent Shout (give or take an avant-garde opera about Charles Darwin), 2013’s Shaking the Habitual is the kind of album critics call “challenging.” This is another way of saying that there are twenty-minute-long drones, demonic zither solos, and songs with titles like “Fracking Fluid Injection.” But this behemoth of an album also has some of The Knife’s most immediate material, too. “Without You My Life Would Be Boring” is an impish, jittery delight, featuring clattering percussion, woozy flutes, and one of the album’s best hooks, expertly withheld until the two minute mark. You might not even notice the strange preoccupation with territorial urination.

9. “Wrap Your Arms Around Me” (from Shaking the Habitual)

Immediately following “Without You…” on Shaking the Habitual, “Wrap Your Arms Around Me” similarly shows off the album’s greatest strength: its percussion. Here, a booming, hypnotic drum loop echoes into the night, like the drum sample on “Angel” made even more menacing. The title promises warmth, and Karin suggests some degree of happiness with another person (“I felt the earth/I felt the time/The sky was blue,”) but their hushed, creaky vocals hint at fear and desperation. Its use in an episode of The Handmaid’s Tale is apt: “Wrap Your Arms Around Me” sounds dystopian, a love song in a world where love is not enough.

8. “Still Light” (from Silent Shout)

Silent Shout is a dark, creepy album, but it’s mostly a ton of fun: a collection of distorted bangers delivered with a Jack o’ Lantern smile. That makes the final track, “Still Light,” all the more striking. The only song on the album that’s completely beatless, “Still Light” features Karin murmuring feebly from a hospital bed as a ghostly synth choir harmonizes behind them. Karin takes the perspective of someone who survived a suicide attempt, and offers no redemptive uplift. This person isn’t given a new lease on life: they’re scared, lonely, and disconnected from the outside world. “Now where is everybody?/Is it still light outside?” Karin asks, before mournful arpeggios lead us out of the room–or maybe into the next world. It’s a poignant, unsettling, perfect ending.

7. “Forest Families” (from Silent Shout)

The Knife got more attention for their music and atmosphere than for their lyrics, but “Forest Families” shows just how good Karin and Olof can be at storytelling. A pulsing synth soundtracks a tense, paranoid picture of provincial life from the point of view of a young girl. In this small forest village, children shun you into hiding (“they said we had a Communist in the family/I had to wear a mask”), elders shame you for your intelligence (“she said my favorite book was dirty and/you should not show you can read”), and women remain ominously homebound (“fathers were football players, Volvo workers, policemen/what the mothers did, I didn’t know.”) Nothing outwardly terrible happens, but “Forest Families” feels like the preamble to a horror movie: a place where you don’t know anyone, but everyone knows you.

6. “Full of Fire” (from Shaking the Habitual)

When some artists get political, they timidly venture that racism might be bad, or that this COVID thing is a bit of a bummer. When The Knife got political, they named their album after a quote from Foucault and made a music video criticizing Swedish tax policy. No one likes being lectured to, but luckily the album’s most explicitly political song is also one of its most fun. The seething “Full of Fire” goes so hard that it’s almost insulting to call it a banger: every drum hit kicks up sparks, and every buzzing synth sounds like it’s about to overheat. Music like this would lend urgency to even the most wishy-washy ideology, and Karin is anything but wishy-washy. As they growl and hiss and snarl their way through various mantras (“Liberals giving me a nerve itch,” “who looks after my story?”, “let’s talk about gender, baby”), it’s obvious that this is more than an academic exercise for them. They’re full of fire, alright, and it’s not burning out anytime soon.

5. “One Hit” (from Silent Shout)

All this talk of haunted atmosphere and political manifestos overshadows something else about the Dreijer siblings: they could be really damn funny when they wanted to be. “One Hit,” the penultimate song on Silent Shout, finds the duo in a more playful mood than usual, serving up a bouncy house beat while Karin leads a belly laugh call-and-response in the chorus. But while the song may sound goofy, it has some bitingly satirical lyrics. 

With their voice pitched down to a cartoonish, belching baritone, Karin sings from the point of view of a male chauvinist, mocking his ignorance and insecurity. He foists domestic duties onto his wife and refuses to get involved (he would only do the washing up “for a reasonable salary,” as though his wife gets paid anything for it.) He protests that he doesn’t watch porn: “if you do it with lights/then it’s art, you see.” He can only bring himself to spend time with his family by comparing himself to Don Corleone from The Godfather. And yet as comically absurd as the song is, “One Hit” reminds us that this mindset, as well as the violence it occasionally hints at, is made possible through our systemic coddling of the male ego. “Being a man is a bliss,” indeed.

4. “A Tooth for an Eye” (from Shaking the Habitual)

Like #1 on this list, “A Tooth for an Eye” was an album opener, tasked with introducing a new version of The Knife to listeners (that is, listeners who hadn’t heard the first single, “Full of Fire.”) In this case, the new version was such a departure that the Dreijer siblings considered releasing it under a different name, but “A Tooth for an Eye” does a perfect job of ushering us into Shaking the Habitual. It has everything that made The Knife great–the rhythms, the eerie atmosphere, Karin’s vocals–and sets them askew, letting you see them in a new light.

“Light” is the operative word. While Silent Shout was set squarely in the witching hour, “A Tooth for an Eye” sounds brighter, crisper, and less dense–but no less creepy. You can imagine this song playing in the daytime, but it’s one of those overcast days where the sky is that particular shade of light grey and every wind gust feels like Death raking his fingers across your cheek. There’s something skeletal about this song, from its click-clack percussion to the staccato bass, and Karin sounds positively wraithlike. They sing in a hair-raising upper register, hitting syllables at odd angles (“January two thou-sand twelve”) and drawing out notes until their voice frays into a scream. “I’m telling you stories,” they plead. “Trust me.” If nothing else, that could serve as our site motto.

3. “Heartbeats” (from Deep Cuts)

There was a time, believe it or not, when The Knife were a fairly normal indie pop duo. They didn’t wear masks, they used guitars from time to time, and they never so much as mentioned Judith Butler. There were still distinguishing elements, like Karin’s voice and their fondness for steel drums, but on the whole they played things safe as they found their footing as artists. Their first two albums, the self-titled and Deep Cuts, are interesting looks at the evolution of The Knife’s singular vision, but nothing measures up to the material on Silent Shout or Shaking the Habitual–except, of course, for “Heartbeats.”

If you’ve heard of “Heartbeats,” it’s probably because of the José González cover that a lot of people like and that I absolutely hate. It sucks every last drop of color and vitality from the original, turning it into another mopey coffee-house folk song. The greatness of the original “Heartbeats” lies in the juxtaposition between the neon bright production (the steel drums, the goofy synthesized drum rolls, the chiptune-y synth blips) and the bittersweet, yearning vocal melodies. It’s the kind of chirpy melancholy that artists like Passion Pit and CHVRCHES made popular a decade later; listening to “Heartbeats” without prior knowledge, you might mistake it for a song that came out after them.

Karin details a brief fling (“one night to be confused/one night to speed up truth”) that never becomes anything more, even though both of them clearly wish it would. The Knife were never the type for straightforward love songs (even here, the lover “knew the hand of the devil” and kept Karin awake with “wolf’s teeth”), but this is as open-hearted and welcoming as they’ve ever sounded, mourning what was lost yet celebrating what’s here now.

2. “We Share Our Mothers’ Health” (from Silent Shout)

Not everyone liked Shaking the Habitual when it first came out. While the critical response was largely positive, others saw it as a tedious, humorless exercise in freaking out the squares. I obviously disagree with that assessment, but the detractors did make a valid point: The Knife didn’t need to alienate people to get political. The Dreijer siblings had proven themselves capable of making succinct, impactful political commentary that also, you know, fucking slapped. Exhibit A: “We Share Our Mothers’ Health.”

“We Share Our Mothers’ Health” came out in 2006–the middle of Dubya’s second term, before the Great Recession–but it still feels perfectly evocative of our current times. Greed and opportunism? “What’s in it for me? Fine, then I’ll agree.” Consumerism? “Say you like it/Say you need it/When you don’t.” Looming dread? “You know what I think/End is always near.” Obliquely dealing with rampant capitalism and the climate crisis, “We Share Our Mothers’ Health” is the sound of things falling apart, the world spinning off its axis.

It’s also completely exhilarating. It starts with dizzy synth chirps that lurch to life like a malfunctioning carousel, before locking into a manic, polyrhythmic beat. A dirty bass line enters the mix, then sharp metallic pings that bounce around like a pinball. The breakdown includes groaning, pitch-shifted vocals for counterpoint, letting things settle to a simmer before it all comes to a boil again. It’s glorious mayhem, but it serves a purpose: “We Share Our Mothers’ Health” thrills us with its hall-of-mirrors sound, but only so we notice the real catastrophe waiting for us outside the club.

1. “Silent Shout” (from Silent Shout)

It begins with three short bass pulses, repeating on loop like some distant distress beacon. The familiar, gradual build of house music has turned sinister, hissing cymbals and a four-on-the-floor thump signaling the start of some shadowy figure’s inevitable hunt. Frigid synths repeat the same figure with small variations each time, twitching and stuttering. When the voices start, they’re dual-tracked: one a near-whisper, the other a demonic growl. Whatever they’re singing about, something terrible has happened: “I never knew this could happen to me/I know now fragility.” The voices and the synths trade off before it all reaches a strobe-lit climax; the voices come back to haunt us some more, and the song fades away as mysteriously as it arrived. Welcome to Silent Shout.

Silent Shout, as well as its magnificent title track, have become hugely influential modern classics of electronic music. Salem, Gazelle Twin and Crystal Castles all walked the same forest path; artists like Purity Ring and CHVRCHES played around with lighter versions of its sound. The bright, Max Martin-ified sound of Nordic pop grew moodier and more atmospheric in response, with Lykke Li and Tove Lo dabbling in the dark arts. Even a future A-lister like The Weeknd started his career indebted to Silent Shout’s gothic murk.

We’ve long since gotten used to arty electronic albums with strange, processed vocals, but it’s worth thinking about how much of a shock Silent Shout (and “Silent Shout”) must have been at the time. Radiohead’s Kid A is the common reference for artists making eerie left turns, but Radiohead were already massively acclaimed; and while it didn’t seem that way at the time, the paranoid, dystopian Kid A was a natural follow-up to the paranoid, dystopian OK Computer. The Knife were fairly obscure outside of their home country, only achieving some indie acclaim with “Heartbeats,” and three years later they came back with this. Things changed immediately; we caught a glimpse, and it haunts us.

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