The Knife, aka Swedish siblings Karin and Olof Dreijer, took the post-punk loom of bands like Bauhaus and the Cure and crossed that morose would-be- Teutonic Britishness with the sugary hooks of their native electro-pop. Critics exulted over the new, fresh synth sound, but were sometimes oddly oblivious to the obvious. The Dreijer’s genius is not in building a fresh new futurist shining city. It’s in the decadent assemblage of a mannerist, preternatural perfection of goth.
The opening title track, with its silent shout of dread or ecstasy, captures the duo’s minor key slippery vogue. Olof’s synths skitter like the sullen older sister of top 40 kicking you out of her room. He intones in alienated robot Kraftwerk tones while Karin adds the incongruously sweet harmonies so that you want to play the eerie movie taglines over and over again at high volume.
In a dream I lost my teeth again
Calling me woman and half man
Yes in a dream all my teeth fell out
A cracked smile and a silent shout
A cracked smile and a silent shout
The rest of the album doesn’t stray far from that perfect cracked smile. “Neverland” slouches towards the NIN industrial end of goth. Olof’s synths throb with precision sensuality as Karin moans affectlessly about “dancing for dollars and a fancy man”—a soundtrack for automated strippers.
“Na Na Na” has Karin imitating a processed Elizabeth Fraser, the Cocteau Twins’ fey forest music turned into a future of slowly rotating digitized elves beneath glass. “The Captain” starts out with ambient electro-acoustic drift that nods to Sigur Ros before picking up one of the duos catchiest melodies; they just can’t keep from writing earworms even while panning over the fjords. “Like a Pen” starts off with finger-snap like clicks a la Timbaland before settling into an itchy techno thump. Karin’s breathily accented stentorian vocals declaim impressionistic lyrics about self-fashioning and unfashioning, watching herself being made over to some alien specifications.
Sharpen my body like a pen
Come on I need to show it
Something too small for a lens
If I rub it I wipe it
The precious improbably catchy so-sweet-it-hurts confessional of ABBA or Robyn is here turned into a precious improbably catchy so-sweet-it-hurts refusal to confess—and where the sunniness of ABBA and Robyn can be maudlin enough to break your heart, the maudlin bitterness of The Knife is exhilarating. “One Hit”, a scabrous sneer at porn, domestic femininity and masculine violence, revels in its own “Hoo Hoo Hoo” of mockery.
When Olaf sings “Spending time with my family/Like the Corleones,” he stretches out the crime family name till you can practically twirl around and around to it, celebrating your distance from love and normality (“It’s manhood’s bliss/One hit one Kiss.”) Goth’s appeal is that you get to be the invulnerable monster, wearing your sadness like a night-colored cloak of armor. As Olof sings on “Off to On” over the quietly quasi-ambient patter “We want control of our bodies/Everything we’ve lacked/I think I even liked it/If the feeling was mine.”
The music wraps you in a blanket of alienness and the universal sensation of splendid isolation. It’s hard not to snort a little at the portentous melodrama when listening to the Knife, just as it’s hard not to snort when listening to forerunners like the Shangri-Las or the Smiths. But if bright, sunny shmaltz is often enjoyably overwrought, why should the dark gloom of shmaltz be any different? The Knife cuts through pop with a not so silent shout to make one of the most mopishly joyish, and/or joyously mopey sounds ever to sway with black eyeliner on the edges of the dancefloor.