Second Look: The Knife – Silent Shout

When god came to visit a small Swedish cottage, he surprised the woman living there, as she was washing her children. In shame, she decided to hide those that were still dirty. God saw through her deception and decided that those hidden would have to hide from humanity. Those children would become known as Hulder: forest deities who from the front would resemble a beautiful girl, but from the back were hollow and had a tail. Those who would come across them would find themselves entranced in their beauty and seductive ways, which even included the ability to take up that of their partners. Those who lay with them would be forced to stay true to them, or else, their betrayal would end in their downfall or demise. And while the female Hulders are those most commonly found in Swedish folklore, there was also the male counterpart; hideously ugly, with long noses, resembling the many trolls of Scandinavian tales rather than their female counterparts.

Sex and death, beauty and ugliness are always interconnected within Swedish folklore, reflecting on a dark side to the nation’s shared subconscious. No other work of the modern era is as indicative and suggestive of this netherworld than The Knife’s Silent Shout, which turned 15 last month.

Stylizing themselves as obscure Faery Folk, siblings Karin and Olof Dreijer succeeded in crafting a sort of Nordic Dark Side of the Moon; a collection of vignettes that expanded on political and mythical imagery in compositions that appear both childlike and complex, organic and crystalline, eerily familiar and exotic. It would be easy to just frame these 11 songs by their influences; a sort of hybrid of Kraftwerk’s Mensch Maschine, The Resident’s Eskimo, and fellow nordic Björk’s catalogue – not to mention a variety of world musical and techno adjacent influences. And while this would do justice to the music, it would also ignore Karin’s cryptic poetry, The Knife’s political interests, and the visual imagery of the era. From its cover – a metallic representation of a blue, rusty metal CD – to the many haunting music videos, Silent Shout is more than the sum of its parts.

Judging by its cover, Silent Shout gives off an almost industrial flair. The comparison to Pink Floyd’s Dark Side reveals a hidden truth: where the Brits’ prism refigured light into a rainbow, the Dreijers’ dark disk seems to swallow it. Like a metallic eye, or part of a larger machine, it directs towards its black void in its middle. It could well be a crude joke, but it could also be an introduction to a deeper truth hidden within the cold confines of the album’s medial surface. And judging from its opening track, which shares the record’s title, this might well have been intentional.

“Silent Shout”, with its muted techno beats and gloomy vocoder, mysteriously dances around a particularly traumatizing incident: “I never knew this could happen to me / I know now fragility / I know there’s people who I haven’t told / I know of people who are getting old.” It would be too easy to link the lyrics here to an abuse narrative, because – at its core – the anxiety here is cosmic, as any sense of stability is removed. “In a dream I lost my teeth again / Calling me woman and a half man,” Karin sings, “Yes in a dream all my teeth fell out / A cracked smile and a silent shout.”

Now, nightmares that feature the loss of teeth and the inability to scream are common, but there is something more sinister to all this. After all, the song ends on the line “I caught a glimpse now it haunts me.” In an eerie fashion, the odd, asexual voice (a man? an alien? an old woman?) wraps over to the last song on the album, “Still Light”. Set to what sounds like a voice humming a lonesome melody, the imagery continues, yet the dream is over: “The doctor came in the morning / She held my hand / And asked ‘Was it worth it? / Could it be worse than this?’” Well, could it be? The album ends on a mysterious question: “Now where is everybody / Is it still light outside?” Considering the title “Still Light” could be a homonym for ‘still life’, the absence of light and other humans could function as a memento mori. However, it could also be a reference to the existentialist usage of light as a symbol of hope, a favourite of fellow Swede Ingmar Bergman. Darkness and shadows obscure and hide. The search for meaning and certainty of ageing bookend the album, refashioning every interpretation one could see fit.

Things become hideously concrete on second track “Neverland”, which has the narrator dance for a “fancy man” in exchange for money, which burns in their hand. References to Michael Jackson abound (“Where’s the monkey that I’ve been told of?”), and the line “He’s pointing with the fingers that are left on his hand” could refer to Roald Dahl’s unlucky gambler in “Man from the South”, which would frame sex work as a sort of risqué performance. The second verse seems to shift back to the narrator at her house (“Is this my home?”), where an “angry man” awaits her, but lines seem to have blurred. The nightmare of the opening track seems to continue, shifting the home in “Neverland” into that of the war-marked homecoming veterans in the icy “The Captain”, which – bizarrely – feels like a parody of the (ermh, fairly problematic) Disney track “We are Siamese”. With its ambient intro and strange falsetto vocals, it is one of the most beautiful tracks here, filled with weird imagery probably aimed at Sweden’s famously ‘neutral’ political leanings: “We are out of wind / We have pockmarked chin / We have all this water / We turn the other cheek with a grin.”

The industrial, nightmarish “We Share our Mother’s Health” continues the political imagery. Atop the album’s most danceable, strangely videogame beat, Karin links consumerist decadence to the exhaustion of resources (“Trees there will be / Apples, fruits maybe / You know what I fear / The end is always near”) and mixes images of the high culture (Red wine and free food) with that of barbaric invaders, wielding torches in their blue hands. There’s also the hellish, apocalyptic music video, which combines fascist and colonialist imagery with SM regalia and Hellraiser-type horror imagery.

Continuing from here, the album takes a left turn, abandoning global issues to focus on dissecting emotional turmoil of modern femininity. Coming late in the album there is the upbeat feminist anthem “One Hit”, whose chorus chant of dog-howling and violent imagery of fists and blows seems to indicate a feral werewolf nature of women, and once more shows a purpose of the absent light: “Then the lights came on, it was all a scene / Bend back, give head, it’s not pornography / If you do it with lights, then it’s art you see / If you do it with a twist / Yes, artistically.” On the flip-side, is the earlier “Na Na Na”, a pretty, nursery rhyme-like song that invokes The Cure’s “The Funeral Party” and uses childlike language to characterize a sort of sterilization of female fears and urges. Pepper spray, blue tampons and chemicals have made woman the perfect convenience.

This peaceful atmosphere is directly contrasted by “Like a Pen”‘s neurotic, saline techno, which directly addresses self harm, dysmorphia and eating disorders. “It’s a shiny, shiny morning / And when the light finds my eye / I’ll be fleeting like a scent,” Karin sings, directly addressing the narrator’s state in the final track. Meanwhile, in the album’s other all-out techno track, “Forest Families”, she constructs a layered tableaux of childhood memories and pagan imagery. Forced to flee the city after a sort of “Red scare”, the narrator’s family is moves to the countryside where they must ‘wear masks’. There, the men are workers and the authority figures are regressive church workers. But the mothers are mysterious, walking communally into the forest. This take of anti-religious naturalism as female enlightenment fits well with Swedish folklore, and directly connects to the liberating, ritualistic nature of dancing to electronic music, as the refrain “music tonight / I just want your music tonight” indicates.

Combining these two emotional states, “From Off to On” is an eerie, Japan-like ballad that finds links between a perceived domestic idyll and reality TV idolization; “When we come home, we want it quiet and calm / We want you to sing us a song / When we come home, we pull the curtains down / Making sure that the TV is on.” The song seems a reflection on the nature of identity deletion within relationships, wherein the individuals’ boundaries melt into the other, just like the media we consume changes our perception of reality. Strangely, the overall theme and lines “I had a dream about deleting and killer whales / Is it the feeling of your body / Or is it the feeling of mine” seem prescient of Jacques Audiard’s film Rust and Bone.

At its most troubling, these themes of regulated womanhood and everyday horror are stylized to gothic perfection in the haunting “Marble House”, a collaboration with Swedish trip-hop artist Jay-Jay Johanson. Aesthetically, the song feels like a slightly melancholic take on Arabic pop music, accompanied by the sound of chattering teeth. Lyrically, it’s easily the densest on Silent Shout. Opening on the lines “I cut your nails and comb your hair / I carry you down the stairs / I wanted to see right through from the other side / I wanted to walk a trail with no end in sight,” it seems to directly reference the Swedish thriller Insomnia and its Chris Nolan-helmed remake. Refocusing a showcase of caring affection into something borderline necrophilic, the song shifts back and forth between a married couple at peace with their soulmate and broken phantoms that inhabit a crypt-like house of marble, which will ultimately imprison their offspring. These seem like images out of an Edgar Allen Poe story, as if Jean Epstein’s silent film House of Usher never fell, and would continue to spawn new undead inhabitants, each generation forgetting their origin story, existing in a godless, almost lobotomized state: “Some things I do for money / Some things I do for free.”

In the end, Silent Shout’s cover makes perfect sense: the album is a haunted house; a deceptively pretty maid-cum-hollowed-out-nymph whose true hideous form reveals itself once the façade is rejected. It’s a phantasmagorical struggle through the hour of the wolf, beginning as a nightmare that, even when awakened, cannot be left behind. We could have known, recognized the artwork as a fossilized relic of possessed found footage, understood the strange masquerade of the Dreijers as a warning, their psychedelic live-shows as occult ceremonies. Silent Shout as feminist body horror – a sonic Lament Configuration or Ring-video. But it’s too late now. We caught a glimpse, and now we can’t get rid of its curse, its hidden knowledge, its dark implications. The techno club has always been abandoned. Is it still light outside?