Laughing at Scary Voices
by Alejandro Ghersi
PROLOGUE, OR WHY YOU SHOULD GIVE A SHITThe Knife is a Swedish band that took form under the hand of Swedish siblings Karin Dreijer Andersson, the wacky blonde frontwoman, and Olof Dreijer, the leftfield techno producer who DJs across Europe as DJ Coolof. Since then, both have pursued successful solo careers, which proves to a point that the Knife's world isn't the brainchild of a single member, but rather, a labor of love created through collaboration. Karin has released one full-length to great critical and commercial acclaim under the name Fever Ray. Their self-run Rabid Records puts out the Knife's entire catalogue. In addition to touring behind turntables, Olof has released three EPs under the pseudonym Ohni Ahyun.
The first time the Knife received funding from the Swedish Arts Council was in 2001. They got $6,327--"pretty standard for albums back then," said Karin Dreijer about the sum. In 2006, Rabid received $11,248 as tour support for what is so far their only U.S. tour. The New York Times' s Jon Pareles described one Webster Hall show as "an elaborately synthetic production that flaunted technology but conjured emotion." That same year, the Knife's Silent Shout made many critics' 10-best lists. Most crucially, it was Pitchfork's #1 record of the year.
1. THE KNIFE'S OUTWARD IDENTTY, OR, TWO DUDES DON'T WANT TO SHOWW (sic) THEIR FACES. DO YOU THINK THE BITCH IS UGLY OR SOMETHING???
Although the band's music has done quite well in critic's eyes, they've shown considerable disdain toward music industry convention. Notoriously difficult to interview and impossible to photograph, the duo have won a number of Swedish Grammis, yet refuse to attend awards ceremonies. When they do show up in public, they each wear a Venetian Medico Della Peste mask (you know, the black ones with birdlike beaks) that prevents anyone from reading their faces. During the January 2007 Grammis, the Knife won in every category they were up for: Composer of the Year, Music DVD of the Year, Producer of the Year, Pop Group of the Year, Album of the Year, and Artist of the Year. Not a thank you note was seen from the pair.
The lazy assumption would be that their media behavior reflects an ungrateful or blindly rebellious demeanor. Instead, I liken the Knife's reticence to show themselves in public to Prince's atypical reluctance to talk about his material. This keeps their work both mysterious and multidimensional. The Knife's love for the abstract and their boredom with the literal figures importantly in the way they project themselves, forcing people to listen to the music as opposed to talking about the band. "If we could choose not to do any photos at all, we would," says Karin Dreijer Andersson. "But it's quite impossible. Because I don't think it has anything to do with the music. So we use the photos now to show what our music looks like." It's very cold and dark and suggestive maybe," says Olof Dreijer of the duo's recent imagery. We feel like that if we had been there with our plain faces, that would destroy the illusion of the music. So we tried to dress up as the music. Occult and dark but at the same time, funny." What all this points to is an all that the Knife want us to focus on their music. Anything else, save the graphic material that accompanies their work, is useless to them. Good to know.
2. WHAT SOME RANDOM PEOPLE SAID ABOUT THE KNIFE ON A WEBSITE AND WHY IT MATTERS
Based on the respect I've garnered for the taste of the masses, I wished before writing this paper that I could somehow learn what people would say about the Knife, preferably in an anonymous setting. Then I realized that an archive of such opinions already exists:
At 3:08 AM on April 19, 2010 the first comment on the YouTube posting of the Knife's "Seeds," from their 2010 Tomorrow, in a Year is as follows:
The next comment:
At 2:44 PM on April 19, 2010 the first comment on "Silent Shout," uploaded by user Randomtypes, from the Knife's penultimate and most important release, Silent Shout, is as follows:
It's worth noting that the little green hand with the number 85 next to it represents a real-time tally of people who gave this post a "thumbs up."
Based on these anonymous comments, we can draw important cornerstones from which to begin a discourse on the Knife. Because unrefined opinions are no less valuable to the analysis of art than 50 doctorate-grade theses are. Acknowledging this, we can proceed-- What is the "it" to which davidts15 refers? What about the song that davidts15 presumably hates gave LasagnaLasagna an erection? Why do at least 86 people feel that physical violence is an appropriate way to settle a dispute about weirdness in pop music? Luckily for you, reader, the answers follow.
3. WHO FED THE KNIFE? OR, DAVID LYNCH & HORROR COMICS AS SEEN ON TV
According to David Foster Wallace's essay "David Lynch Keeps His Head," an academic definition of Lynchian is that the term "refers to a particular kind of irony where the very macabre and the very mundane combine in such a way as to reveal the former's perpetual containment within the latter." Sound description though this is, it still ends up a word that can only be defined ostensively, pointing at works or situations and specifying the Lynchian in them. Thankfully, Foster knows this and he elaborates on his point with a fitting example: "I've noted since 1984 (when Blue Velvet was released) that a good 65 percent of the people in metropolitan bus terminals between the hours of midnight and 6 A.M. tend to qualify as Lynchian figures grotesque, enfeebled, flamboyantly unappealing, freighted with a woe out of all proportion to evident circumstances . . . a class of public place humans I've privately classed, via Lynch, as "insistently fucked up." I'll be blunt and save time: the Knife's world is insistently fucked up.
The Knife's relationship with American cartoonist Charles Burns is multilayered. Before they met, the band had already made thorough reference to his breakout graphic novel, Black Hole, through their first record's album artwork. Like Lynch, Burns depicts a story that captures the sparks that fly off the tension between the blatantly ordinary and the absurdly grotesque. The main gist of Black Hole is that a disease called "the bug" infects teenagers who engage in sexual activity. Rather than causing infections or even death, however, the infection results in freakish deformities of varying degrees that turn teens into social outcasts. Black Hole a teen horror comic, and yet it has as much fun defying teen horror conventions as working within them. It is no coincidence that the Knife empathized with Burn's Black Hole thematically and stylistically. The rigid conventions of the teen horror genre correspond to the rules of techno music, and the Knife has as much fun defying them as working within them. But a more important parallel is the reality that the end goal is just that--fun. That's why the Knife's Silent Shout works so well in the overpopulated world of electro-pop, and why Black Hole has become a cult classic within the enormously competitive world of comics.
The most direct influence of Black Hole on the Knife can be seen on their video for "Silent Shout," a chilling clip that drew on the work of 1930s German animator Oscar Fischinger and on Charles Burns's sexually transmitted plague. Let me tell you, the Knife ate that shit up. And yet all this begs the question: why? Bear with me. When talking about the Andreas Nilsson-directed video for "Silent Shout," Karin explains: "We told Andreas we wanted something very dark and surrealist. When he came up with this idea it was perfect. Silent Shout is one of the songs that feels most . . ." Karin stops for a think. "It's very near what kind of music we want to do. We have been making music for seven years and with every year you are getting close to what kind of music you really want to do. I think we are pretty close. In that song particularly: because it has all the elements that we like it's very sad, but hard and beautiful at the same time. And it's cold, but it's warm. A lot of qualities!" she laughs. Wait what? Karin what? She LAUGHS?
Oh . . . I get it now.
4. WHAT'S SO FUNNY? OR, I AM TOO POOR TO AFFORD DYING IN THE GUTTER. I'M MISERABLE GET IT? FUCK ME DOWNSTAIRS
David Lynch and Charles Burns and the Knife approach haunting images, absurdity, unappealing humans, and loneliness in all of their work. But it's more often comedy than horror. On Silent Shout's "Forest Families," Karin garbles "They say we had a communist in the family, I had to wear a mask" to hair-raising effect. And yet these same lyrics display a healthy, albeit disturbing sense of humor--a precise combination of uncomfortable ha-ha and funny ha-ha. And this is important. Without this quirky, fucked up sense of humor their work loses weight and depth. After all, the Knife's lyrics resist parsing in the same way that Lynch's Mullholland Drive's timeline resists parsing and Burn's Black Hole resists being taken seriously. The only thing we can do with certainty is laugh at the dark world they've created and, in the process, laugh at our own undeniably fucked up society. Bingo the theatrics and the comedy coming together. Sort of like those Greek dramas that triggered catharsis in their audience. The only thing that's wrong about laughing about the Knife's circumstance is that some people fail to get the joke. As Robert Christgau once put it: "The musical construction is so jaunty that they can't be serious even if they're cutting their alienated fans out of the joke. Dig it when Karin lowers her voice electronically and duets with herself. Good giggles are so rare in alt these days."
The Knife's obsession with the wacky is reflected in both their love for the weirdly theatrical and the sharp slaps of their cold and machine-like percussion. But it mostly lives in the lyrics. Make no mistake: the fact that Karin's lyrics resist parsing by no means renders them useless in our discourse. In fact, they are as meaningful to the identity of the band as the music--both are designed to map out the same landscape. Through his computer's black magic, Olof pitches Karin's voice up and down, sideways even, to great theatrical effect. In some songs we hear a man singing underwater, and another time we hear housewives whispering in a cave. Sometimes it's both. The array of effects Karin's voice proudly bathes in is jaw-dropping. The cast of Silent Shout alone includes: "solitary sailors, a hermaphrodite, a sickly person or two, male-bonding groups in crisis, TV addicts, a scared housewife, and a biologically weighty citizen that desperately tries to get to know his body." In short, Karin's lyrics are close examinations of alienation. In the memorable "Na Na Na," Karin sings the following comedy in chipmunk voices: "Every month/ I've got my period to take care of/ And collect in blue tampons/ Na na na/ I've got mace, pepper spray/ And some shoes that run faster than a rapist rapes." Karin says it's the scared housewife that performs "Na Na Na," but she's unable to provide too much more detail. Not that it matters to them-- on the subject of another song, the hypnotic "We Share Our Mother's Health," Olof says: "It's a very hysterical and mainly a panicked kind of song.' Olof admits he often has no idea what his sister's lyrics are about. "I can only relate to the harmonics [and] the sounds."
5. A MOMENT OF SILENCE
In March of 2010, the Knife released a studio version of an opera they'd been commissioned to score titled Tomorrow, in a Year on the life and research of the English naturalist, Charles Darwin. Sadly, it doesn't come close to the sparkle of 2006's Silent Shout. I have no doubt that the Knife is a creatively intelligent band, and I assume that Tomorrow, in a Year comes very close to the kind of record they meant to make. It is no new thing for a pop band to set out to make Art, and it is almost a certainty that the results will prove more interesting to the band than to the rest of the world. The articulate sense of humor of their previous works is absent from the opera, replaced solely with pretension. A section of the opera, "Variation of Birds," ties together sequences of conceptually provocative field recordings of birds that the band themselves recorded in different parts of the world with long stretches of FM synth textures that evolve slowly over time. It is also boring.
Although watching German actors in bird costumes dance in the midst of a holy-fuck light show would no doubt make Tomorrow, in a Year easier to digest, the fact remains: the record is unappetizing to everyone except those who force themselves into liking shit to be cool. I, on the other hand, would much rather listen to Karin's solo debut on the deeply moving Fever Ray. I can only wonder went through Olof's mind this year as he sat on his ass while Karin performed a viciously ethereal set to open-mouthed critics at Coachella. I'm tickled to still see that the alien in the Knife lives on, at least in Karin's solo project. Really, I'm as charmed as I can be, hearing her warble about dishwashing liquid and throwing sticks at magpies. But I hope Olof realizes what's happening, because 2006's Silent Shout is a lot better than 2009's Fever Ray is, and as far as I know, Silent Shout couldn't have happened without him. I don't want them to make the same record over again, trust me. They're better than that. I just want more the Knife being funny, because then I can really take them seriously. Dead seriously.
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