The Knife’s Silent Shout forever skewed the landscape of subversive pop
Label: Rabid Records
Original release date: 17 February 2006
“Scandinavian” once meant a certain thing in pop: clean, bright, peppy. As the millennium turned, the Stockholm juggernaut let loose by Denniz Pop and Max Martin went global, drawing a line from ABBA through Ace of Base to Robyn, and beyond to Britney and the Backstreet Boys. Sweden became the top per capita exporter of music perfectly constructed for world domination, drawing endless critical parallels to IKEA furniture.
The Knife’s 2003 second album, Deep Cuts, with its retro, rainbow sleeve and rushing, bubbling singles, appeared to fit loosely into this tradition. Frustrated at the low sales of their eponymous debut, Gothenburg brother-sister duo Olof and Karin Dreijer had decided to live up to their national reputation and “make pop music, because we wanted to reach more people”.
The ruse worked almost too well. A cover by fellow Gothenburger José González of Deep Cuts’ radiant, pulsing love song Heartbeats leaned into melancholy sentimentality, and in 2005, the song was picked up for a Sony advert. Reluctantly, the Dreijers took the fee, reasoning they could use it for their third album, which was already skewing darker and closer to their own taste. But in their hearts, they still felt, in the words of Karin, that it was “dirty money”.
A persistent unease at the tension between commercial and artistic forces runs through Silent Shout like the after-effects of a nightmare. The title, Karin said, reflected stifled expression: “When you dream and really want to scream something, nothing comes out”. The voices that did emerge were shapeshifters, their provenance and intent obscured by dramatic pitch-shifting. On the opening title track, Karin’s voice is doubled at different heights, like a sinister doppelganger haunting her over needling, flickering synth arpeggios and softly subaqueous drum pads. In Na Na Na, the reverie of a woman who, despite domestic security, dreams of mace and chemical castrations, her vocal is tweaked into airy, eerie swoops. On Marble House, a codependent duet more mausoleum than love palace, she trades words with Jay-Jay Johanson, both warped and blurred, neither man nor woman.
Long before gender and its construction dominated cultural conversation, manipulating her voice allowed Karin to inhabit multiple viewpoints on personal politics and trauma. In One Hit, she inhabits a grotesque boor, an epitome of toxic masculinity. Neverland’s pounding, relentless beat, on the other hand, hammers home the fear of its narrator, “dancing for money”, who knows that “nothing is more fatal than an angry man“, but admonishes themselves for feeding “the hand that bites me“.
Those same hard-edged, nervy rhythms and trance arpeggios bring wild exhilaration on the likes of The Captain, We Share Our Mother’s Health and Like a Pen. Often, the bracing effect evokes a mythical, icy far north, especially on the expansive chorus of Forest Families, which was inspired by the Dreijers’ upbringing in Gothenburg’s rural outskirts. Karin said the ideal listening situation for the album was “a car. Driving fast, away from the city. Definitely at night”.
Though Silent Shout was a deliberate attempt to veer away from the mainstream, looking back, it seems more like it pulled the mainstream toward it. Without overstating its direct influence – The Knife were inspired by many of the wider forces that have shaped pop in recent years, from early techno and trance to Southern hip-hop and grime – it feels like one of those outrider records that picks up early on a change in the air. Following its release, artists such as Lykke Li, Niki and the Dove, Tove Lo and Denmark’s MØ emerged, nudging Scandi pop towards Nordic noir, while witch house took the template of cold electronics and pitch-shifted vocals and ran with it. Then pop as a whole took a darker turn, influenced by dubstep, EDM and murkier, slower strains of hip-hop and R&B.
The Knife continued to go their own determinedly difficult way, until they didn’t. For the extravaganza tour of their final album, Shaking the Habitual, they remade some of Silent Shout’s tracks as “Shaken Up versions”. Brilliant though the busier reworkings were, they underlined the stark power of the originals. Silent Shout feels timeless, almost elemental, and truly one of those albums where an artist absolutely nails their essence in one cohesive statement. And, thank god, it helped finally rid us of those IKEA similes.