Friday, March 19, 2010

The Knife

Tomorrow In A Year (Mute, 02.2010)

For: all brave explorers

Byline: The polarizing double-album based on the life and observations of Charles Darwin. The most heady and ambitious album of the year.

If you saw this, last year you may have gotten some idea in what direction The Knife were heading. But nothing, I expect, could have prepared us for this. Tomorrow In A Year is brave. Very brave. Even for a band who has laced their brightest pop moments with a sense of misanthropic dissatisfaction with the genre, who would have guessed the follow up to Silent Shout would be a sprawling opera that charts Charles Darwin's theory of evolution from single celled organism to fully fleshed human beings in just over 90 minutes? Granted this album has been discussed to death, hailed and derided, probably burned in effigy somewhere in the deep south, so why now, should I take up the cross of trying to review this record? Well, I have listened to it thrice and I need to be validated. I need to tell someone about this, even if just discussing it conceptually. This is a record that deserves to be heard. By everyone. Just make sure you have an hour and a half to kill, and really nice headphones/speakers. This is not a car album, nor does it lend itself to any type of portability, don't take this jogging with you. Every song demands to be played in the sequence it was designed for. Tomorrow In A Year is a journey. So let's begin.

First, conceptually, you will probably not find a richer album this year. The music traces the evolution of humankind, sticking closely to Darwin's Theory of the Origin of Species recounting instances from both his observations and personal life. The album starts with scattershot of buzzing electronics, aleatoric percussion, oscillating cicada-like drones before we feel a faint pulse of life, the vestiges of a tiny single celled organism struggling through the primordial stew before Kristian Whalin's gorgeous mezzo-soprano voice announces a call to life. Kristian Whalin's voice is the vehicle that carries the narrative for the first half of the album and is an important accompanist in the conquered new world of the second half of the album. But for now we living amongst cells dividing, rocks crystalizing, primeval amoebas growing vestiges. Liquid crawling synths frequently visit the upper register in washes or blips, while low-end frequencies spawn and multiply below in a tide pool of pregnant tonal variations. For as "atonal" as this half of the album is there are wealths of downright enjoyable moments, sounds, seconds, mutations that make this a singular listening experience.

We visit the pliocene epoch for a brief, transitionary moment, where Swedish singer-songwriter Johnathan Johansson narrates the receding of the glaciers and the bubbling up of vertebrate life in an expressive lilt. With "Variations of Birds" we get our first taste of noisy, chaotic, confusing pro-backbone life. Angry dissonance of manipulated feedback alternately oscillate and squeak, while Johansson's voice floats over the squalor. The lyrics up to this point seem to be coming from a narrator coming to these revelations/observations at the same time we are grasping the conceptual thrust of the album. Darwin, our subjective narrator, states, "so that there are more than three types of birds that use their wings for more than flying/The Steamer has paddles/the penguin has fins/and the ostrich spreads its plumes likes sails to the breeze". The next few songs find The Knife tracing the evolution of the bird from studio mimicry of field recordings of Amazon birds to a swarming, overwhelming drone of flapping wings and insect buzzing in "Schoal Swarm Orchestra".

With that we are off to the holocene and beyond. "Annie's Box", written for Darwin's daughter Annie who died when she was 10, is a lamentful, elegiac opera piece sung by Whalin that is infused with the albums first sense of raw humanity. Sadness. One emotion that is communicable between every race and (evidence points to) species. This is an interesting move into a world populated by humans, a personal grievance over losing someone so close. After this announcement we are introduced to the natives. A pounding timpani roll introduces the first of the albums beat (in a primal sense) driven songs on "Tumult". The terse percussion creeps closer like suspicious tribesmen or AK-47 carrying soldiers, suggesting that the second most shared emotion is fear. Especially the clannish fear of the unknown once we separate into colonies. "Colouring of Pigeons" start a three song stretch of songs by The Knife as we know it. Punctuated by Whalin's percussive "ohs" and "ahs" a tribal beat drives the song into familiar territory before a low-end synth rips across the headphones announcing that the siblings Dreijer were in fact at the helm of this project the whole time. Karin Dreijer-Andersson's unforgettable voice comes in at about three minutes thus starting the third act. An unspecified time that seems to both in awe and in possession of sage-like wisdom that either seems to be witnessing civilization growing rapidly around them, boldly conquering and dividing itself like a single celled organism, or a narrator at the end of the very last epoch of humankind explaining to us the last days in the history of this race. Followed up by "Seeds" and ending with "Tomorrow In A Year", this suite effectively completes the arc.

And there we have it. Conceptually the album is massive, but even more so musically. After listening to the album three times all the way through I don't hesitate to say this is The Knife at the top of their game, making the album they always had the potential to make. Who knows, this could be the best album of the year or will be recovered as a faithful history of our race by a group of interstellar explorers after our civilizations demise.

Ryan H.

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