Once upon a time, The Knife seemed like the world’s most ironically named duo—after all, how could artists with such a severe, violent moniker produce a song like 2005’s “Heartbeats,” a synth-pop confection so winsome that fellow Swede José González covered it in folksong form for a Sony Bravia ad? But after the release of 2006’s darkwave masterwork, Silent Shout, the name started to make a lot more sense: Everything that brother/sister act Olof Dreijer and Karin Dreijer Andersson do constitutes a premeditated effort to sever ties with whatever preceded it. (Rather than immediately capitalize on the critical success of Silent Shout, the duo produced an amorphous, atonal opera about Charles Darwin, and Andersson released an album of slow-simmering electro-goth as Fever Ray.)
Shaking the Habitual may arrive as the official, seven-years-in-the-waiting follow-up to Silent Shout, but it’s less a return to form than a wholesale repudiation of it; the album doesn’t so much reward fans’ patience as test their commitment. It also counts as the most audacious, spellbinding album of the year thus far, one whose delirious high points (the white-knuckled electro-punk epic “Full of Fire,” the belly-dancer bump of “Without You My Life Would Be Boring,” the hail-storm techno of “Stay Out Here”) totally justify the appearance of a 19-minute mid-album, found-sound drone piece as a necessary respite.
But what’s most inspiring is how The Knife wholly reconstruct their essence—often forsaking programmed beats for acoustic-guitar scrapes and clattering percussion, and shirking voice-masking obfuscation for pointed, politicized social critique—while retaining their inimitably twisted sense of melody and humour. Shaking the Habitual may be stern-faced enough in its ideological intent to base its most towering chorus (“Raging Lung”) around a Fugazi lyric, but not so precious as to resist the temptation to roll a quick comment on inequality (“let’s talk about gender, baby”) into a Salt-N-Pepa quote.
Playlist picks: Clear 96 minutes in your schedule, draw the blinds, turn out the lights, put on your headphones, text your loved ones to tell them you’ll be okay, and hit “play.”