And now for something completely different…
I haven’t written any music-related posts since last November, to my surprise and slight disappointment. All that time listening to weird and wonderful albums without giving you fine folks a single glimpse into that weird world I love so much. To compensate for the drought, let’s dive into the absolute weirdest thing I’ve listened to in the past few months: Tomorrow, In a Year. (It’s the music from an opera about Charles Darwin. So, uh… yeah.)
I went on a major Knife kick recently. Their latest album, Shaking the Habitual, dropped in April and while it did scratch that Knife itch, it made me even more curious about their lesser-known stuff. See, I got into The Knife through their live show, which absolutely blew my mind when I discovered it. (It’s one of the few live recordings that frankly sounds better than the album versions of the same songs.) From there, I went back and checked out their three LPs, and then sort of called it a day, so what I missed out on was a fairly obscure soundtrack they did for a film called Hannah med H and, more recently, a solo album and collaboration project.
It’s the collaboration project, between The Knife, Mt. Sims, and Planningtorock, that has utterly captured my imagination, though. It’s like nothing I’ve listened to before, but it gives new meaning to the phrase “love it or hate it.” I mean that. You may really love this album, but before you run off to give it a listen (and then afterward come running back to tell me how terrible I am), let me warn you: a lot of the sounds on this album will be downright offensive to you on a first listen. It is not for the feint of heart, and you’ve got to give it some time to work its magic on you.
I didn’t like Tomorrow, In a Year the first time I listened to it. I’m not sure I hated it, but I definitely found it unpleasant at times. And the second or third times weren’t much better. So why did I keep coming back? Well, for one song in particular.
“Colouring of Pigeons” is one of the album’s most structured, most conventional songs, and if any of the tracks strike your fancy, it will likely be this one. For a week or two, I could not get this song out of my head, and the more I listened to it, the more I felt like I wasn’t being fair to the rest of the album — the more my brain kept nagging me to give it another shot. And another. And another.
And the more you listen to the thing as a whole, the more you start to see shapes in the fog, as it were, to latch onto. With each trip through, sound begins to coalesce into music, and your mind starts to create something out of what only sounded like chaos before.
I can never tell if I’m finding meaning in art or if I’m imposing it from the outside. Maybe both. Maybe it doesn’t matter, as long as you get something out of it. But I have to wonder if The Knife and their collaborators intended for the listener’s relationship with the music to mirror the journey within the album itself — because the album is about creating something out of chaos. It’s about life — the birth of organisms and the order they create out of chaos.
The first disk (it’s a double album) begins with a curious mix of electronic clicks and ambient nature sounds that build into the low rumble of what sounds like the moments before a storm. From there, things get weirder and more chaotic — up-and-down synth buzzing layered on top of clanging, wailing metallic sounds on top of traditional operatic vocals — but they also begin to take a more tangible shape. Not a pleasing shape, for most listeners, but a shape nonetheless. The first lifeforms emerging from the raging sea.
Of particular interest on that subject is the seventh track, “Variation of Birds,” which elbows in right after what is probably the least aurally offensive track on the disk, the hauntingly beautiful and understated “Ebb Tide Explorer” (one of my favorites off the album). “Variation,” in contrast, immediately opens with an ear-piercing buzzing sound, and it’s not until thirty seconds into the song that some pattern begins to form. It tries one pattern, then another, and another, before settling on something that almost sounds like music — and that’s when the vocals come in and bring some real order and sense to the mix. Suddenly, a sound that two minutes ago only made you want to throw the disk straight out the window is now, actually… pretty tolerable. Almost enjoyable.
In what is sort of weirdly ironic but probably totally intentional, the second disk is the one you’ll likely want to listen to, if you ever have a hankering for Tomorrow, in a Year, nine times out of ten. It’s like a reward after suffering through the first side of the album.
Forty-five seconds into the opening track, it’s clear something is different here. Similar sounds — mostly electronic in nature — comprise the song, but it immediately has the feeling of more structure, more emotion, more intent. It’s more musical than anything up to that point, and the mournful sound of vocalist Kristina Wahlin (on previous tracks, high and ear-piercing) drives home that fact. We’ve moved into something distinctly human here, even if it’s the feeling of death and loss. We’re in familiar territory, fast becoming even more familiar.
“Tumult” represents a transition — from the distinctly electronic and manufactured, to the real and tangible: real drums and what sounds to me like a tambourine. By the time we arrive at “Colouring of Pigeons,” we’ve shed all modern trappings and come to something that sounds almost tribal. And for the first time, not one voice but a chorus — joined by The Knife’s breathtaking Karin Dreijer Andersson — narrating us through the journey we’ve just been on. “A few southern vegetable forms / on the mountains of Borneo” and “beak shapes / skeletal traits” — to “Mr Peacock and Captain Beaufort.”
And then we’re back, now. Today. We’re back in the electronic. We’re back in dance music, of all places, with very Knife-esque songs “Seeds” and the closing “Height of Summer,” separated only by the more drum-heavy and “Pigeons”-like title track. “Height of Summer” has been criticized a fair bit for sounding too much like The Knife’s older (beloved) single, “Heartbeats,” but it doesn’t really bother me. I think the similarities are exaggerated, but more importantly, it’s a powerful song in its own right — and the perfect finisher for the album. A love letter to… evolution, I guess? It’s weird, but it feels like a lot of the rest of the album: about something scientific and sterile, but strangely beautiful and emotive:
In the morning I went down to the beach
and gazed out to the sea
Suddenly I was only a leaf
and you were an ancient flower
How is Charles
I haven’t heard from him for a long long time
A thousand years seem to pass
I dunno, man. Maybe it’s overly poetic and sappy, but it just gets to me. It probably works better in song form than in text, though…
But that’s basically the deal with this whole second side of the album. It’s all pretty shockingly heartfelt music about a guy none of the artists have ever met. Even to make it to the sappy stuff, though, you’ve got to make it through the complete chaos of the first disk. Surprisingly, it took me maybe half a dozen listens before I felt this way, but I think it’s a journey worth taking.
Weird, high-concept, artsy nonsense? Maybe, but it’s glorious weird, high-concept, artsy nonsense.