“I’m telling you stories,” Karin Dreijer Andersson shrieks on the opening track “A Tooth For an Eye,” before letting rip with “Trust meeeeeeeeeeee-aaaaaaahhhhhh!” And what stories those are: On their long-awaited follow-up to their 2006 U.S. breakthrough Silent Shout, this Swedish brother-sister duo have crafted the musical equivalent of a Wes Craven horror movie for PhDs. Politics, feminism, gender studies, social class, “commercial homogenization,” as they state in their biography — all those weighty ideas are explored on 13 tracks.
Whether any of this makes sense in the hands of a press-shy, costume-wearing duo is another question. Andersson has long reveled in screwing around with audiences: She famously accepted a televised award in 2010 for her side project Fever Ray while wearing a mask that looked like molten flesh. And on Shaking the Habitual, she remains equally opaque: Plainspoken, politically-charged lyrics (“Not a vagina/ It’s an option!”) get masked with all sorts of vocal effects, shrieks, yelps, groans and grunts. Then there are downright silly sentiments: “A handful of elf pee/ That’s my soul.” Huh? Sure, Andersson and her brother Olof Dreijer have said in interviews that they want to challenge the listener’s understanding of race, class, sexuality, etc., on this album. But over a double-disc set, it’s hard not to think this is a giant practical joke — a musical version of a 4chan troll.
What is clear, however, is the Knife’s gift for crafting some of the most forward-thinking electronic music around — Shaking the Habitual is an exhilarating, what-the-fuck-is-going-on-here listen. It’s definitely their freakiest set yet — maybe the freakiest record this year. Cuts like “Full of Fire” and “Raging Lung” are packed with synth earworms and djembe drums and storm-the-floor electronic beats and flutes and recorders and art-damaged acoustic guitars and feedback drones. And is that the Munchkins from the Wizard of Oz shrieking on “Without You My Life Would Be Boring”? That reference would sense — L. Frank Baum’s fictional character is all about illusion — and Anderson clearly revels in playing with the role of a modern-day sonic wizard. In a time when pop stars and television personalities offer up every mundane detail of their personal lives for the sake of a retweet, sometimes it’s nice to have an artist who remains shrouded in nothing but mystery.