Invasion of the Body-Snatchers: The Knife’s Radiant Return to NYC
Yesterday, a digital release of Shaken-Up Versions–a mini-album of their classic tunes reworked for their last North American tour–was released on Rabid/Brille/Mute Records. (Look out for vinyl and CD versions of said mini-album later this summer.) We were lucky enough to catch the Knife performing songs from the album earlier this year, when they played a killer show at Terminal 5 in NYC. Read all about it below…
For the first time in nearly eight years, the Knife returned to the stage with a pair of sold-out shows that Terminal 5 packed well over-capacity. It was the overdue return of Olof Dreijer and Karin Dreijer Andersson. Yet the Swedish siblings spent most of the show relinquishing the spotlight and blending in with a phalanx of dancers dressed in jewel-toned onesies.
The set appropriately leaned heaviest on the Knife’s fourth album, Shaking The Habitual, an impressive, digressive triple LP. It incorporates dark, ambient edges as well as joyous, percussive beats. The juxtaposition of those sounds suggests what was evident at the show: the personal is political, but politicization doesn’t have to be torture. On the other hand, it can be a celebration; a reason to get down at futuristic dance party with a cohort of glitter-dusted aliens. After all, isn’t that partly why we were all there?
The night’s phantasmagoria began, naturally, swathed in manufactured fog. Fat beams intersected the warehouse at odd angles, simultaneously invoking the theatrics of a Broadway play and the terror of a police raid. “Wrap Your Arms Around My Body” was Ms. Andersson’s foreplay of the night: “In the crowd/ I’ll find you.” She flitted coyly from the center stage, as the other performers traded turns being the leader: whether that meant lead singing, dancing, or playing a solo instrument. The most bizarre of which was an elongated wooden contraption that appeared to be some kind of hammered dulcimer.
The turquoise tribe pounded on steel drums, and sometimes they just mimicked it. They invoked the delicate undulations of Bhangra music (“Tooth For An Eye”), faded into finger-snaps in pitch dark, and faithfully pumped orange and yellow maracas (which matched their glowing nail polish). However, actual live music was predominantly scarce, because the emphasis of the production lay resolutely on the choreography. Given the volume of abstractions on Habitual, it was no surprise the Knife opted for more pre-programmed sound. It also freed everyone up to convey what was really at stake: what it means to be a united body.
A body of what, you might ask. Ms. Andersson threw out some ideas. The one time she really commanded the stage was to recite a poem by Jess Arndt, the New York writer responsible for Habitual’s rousing, punk rock PR statement. The poem invoked the conceptual spirit of that manifesto. “I want a body with no internal and no external… that sweats medical marijuana … a body in every color, that says yes, yes, yes … A body that no matter how dead we seem always wakes up clawing”, Ms. Andersson received a thrum of excitement for that last line.
The spoken word was a beguiling mid-set break. For one, it was validating to hear what Ms. Andersson had to say. Between her thick accent and the density of the Knife’s arrangements, her lyrics are too frequently imperceptible. The recitation dramatically (and clearly!) enunciated the mission statement and showcased Ms. Andersson’s indelible bravado. In the Knife, Ms. Andersson daringly drops her own fearsome visions of feminism, politics and the media onto the dance floor. The violence in Ms. Andersson’s piercing voice echoes that of Bjork or Diamanda Galas. It pushes back on the pressures of reality. Ms. Andersson’s singing is like an act of self-preservation, one that exacerbates the gravity of the music.
For the night, movement was also a form of survival. The shimmering bodies twisted and twirled like dainty girl groups (“Bird”). Elsewhere, they performed Victorian-era line dances (“Without You My Life Would Be Boring”). Concentrating on these disparate styles of dance, which broadly encapsulated everything from African to Bollywood to modern dance, suggested that people have a rich history of moving bodies together as a group, which is to say, a repeated tradition of unity.
The Knife Tickets
The choreography grew feverish on “One Hit,” a propulsive song from the Knife’s 2010’s album, Tomorrow, in A Year. The dancers divided in Shark-versus-Jet formation and engaged in seductive back and forth exchanges across the stage. The dancers weaved and galloped around each other, keeping pace with every “Whoa-oh-oh-oh” and “Ooh-oo-oo-oo.” The album was an opera about Darwin’s Origin of the Species, recorded with Mt. Sims and Planningtorock. It was an ambitious project that suffered at the hands of its own self-seriousness. As a result, Habitual does not shrift pleasure in order to preserve the political message.
The stage lights enveloped the dancers in subterranean blue until suddenly everything became red and the lingering waves of the group’s locomotion turned locomotive. For “Full of Fire,” arms and legs swiveled like the cogs of a clock or the pulleys of an industrial plant. Each body in the metaphorical mechanical machine served a small function and enacted that function with a steely vigor. It was the most staunchly proletarian track of the night, hearkening back to the Knife’s fervent call to end extreme wealth in the world.
The grandiose production ended as it began, in a pall of readymade smoke. This time, however, the stage evolved into an ultramodern dance club for “Pass This On,” “Stay Out Here” and “Silent Shout.” The performers danced anonymously now that the segmented machine movements had lapsed into freestyle. It’s hard to tell where “Stay Out Here” started, ended, and whether it actually played for over 10 minutes as it does on the record. The song bled into the others and featured a Powerful Oz-like MC wafting from the airwaves, bleating indiscernible orders at those below.
The show petered out into a psychedelic jam as the house music continued to blast long after Mr. Dreijer, Ms. Andersson, and the rest of the dancers fled the stage. Keeping the audience in a dance trance seemed like the Knife’s intention all along. Within the color-drenched venue, the strangers that remained moved without inhibition and in an impromptu ensemble, like one giant, figureless god.
Set List for The Knife @ Terminal 5 | 4/30/14
Wrap Your Arms Around Me
We Share Our Mothers’ Health
Without You My Life Would Be Boring
A Tooth for an Eye
Full of Fire
Collective Body Possum (Poem)
Ready to Lose
Pass This On
Stay Out Here