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The Knife – Tomorrow, In a Year

on February 12, 2010, 3:15am

The Knife released one of the most critically acclaimed albums of the 2000s, and one half of the duo released one of 2009’s most lauded albums under the moniker Fever Ray. Based on their combined discography, Swedish siblings Karin Dreijer Andersson and Olof Dreijer appear to be on a creative streak that most musicians would kill for. (And judging by the enigmatic personas this sister and brother meticulously cultivate, I wouldn’t be surprised if they did commit murder along the way.) The Knife’s music has only improved with each release. Now, four years after their seminal LP Silent Shout, the pair returns with the double-disk Tomorrow, In a Year.

Under most circumstances, the follow-up to a breakthrough record would be anticipated at an intimidating level. Rather than spend years crafting another killer studio LP, The Knife announced they were commissioned by Danish theater company Hotel Pro Forma to compose Tomorrow, In a Year, an opera about the life and work of historic scientist Charles Darwin. Obviously, nothing could go wrong with this project, right? If anything screams opera it’s two electro-pop musicians who make music entirely out of beeps and gadgets and do most publicity wearing bird masks and using voice filters. With this announcement, they amped up anticipation, simultaneously raising expectations and lowering them to unprecedented levels.

Collaborating with fellow musicians Planningtorock and Mt. Sims, The Knife decided to make slight adjustments to the opera for the audio release. Having not seen the opera in person, I can only assume these changes don’t detract from the narrative and help the piece stand alone as a record. That said, even tweaked for an audio-only audience, Tomorrow, In a Year is the The Knife’s most challenging release — electronic opera? electropopera? concept album? sonic experiment? — to date. Even devotees who rank Silent Shout and Fever Ray as their favorite releases of the last decade won’t necessarily latch onto this double LP, but plenty will after many, many listens.

When “Intro” opens the album and you hear the sound of digital crickets, don’t check your speakers. Static and fleeting frequency blips trickle in for four-and-a-half minutes before segueing into “Epochs”, a sort of overture where industrial sound effects meet opera. Midway through the track we get to hear mezzo soprano Kristina Wahlin for the first time and she dispels any doubt that this is an operatic experience. Her voice has the power to fill a performance hall, yet it’s pushed back in the mix so that she sounds as if she’s singing to the back of the room, back to the microphone. A few lines into the first vocals of the record and you know that this narrative is steeped in concrete details that manage to remain maddeningly abstract. Wahlin sings, “A step formed terrace succession/embedded years/accumulating so tranquilly small quadrupeds/So perfectly/epochs collected here”.

Track by track, the story follows Darwin’s work and his personal life. The lyrics flip between Darwin’s own scientific observations and personal journals, letting us peek into both sides of the revolutionary scientist without ever getting a full grasp on either aspect of his life and suggesting that he did not see a division between his profession and his family. The tracklist illustrates this juxtaposition with titles like “Minerals” and “Seeds” alongside “Annie’s Box” and “Tumult”.

Make no mistake: This is a project by The Knife, but it is not a standard album for the duo, either. Although Jonathan Johansson offers some appropriately sterile vocals that you’ve come to expect from the duo’s albums, you only hear Andersson’s trademark androgynous voice on two tracks. Johansson, Wahlin, and Lærke Winther are superb in their roles, but Andersson’s voice is refreshing and comforting when it first appears 12 tracks in on the stunning “Colouring of Pigeons”. The 11-minute epic, which was the first track released from Tomorrow, is strangely the most accessible of the collection. Perhaps its artistry can be attributed to the fact that it is the only track on which Andersson and the aforementioned vocalists appear together.

“Colouring…” opens with a swooping drum and hocketing vocals that would make The Dirty Projectors proud. The first lines are clinical research notations: “Northern forms existed in their own homes /thousand – yellow – cocoons/under – over – through.” Later, Darwin’s private journals intertwine with his work as he describes one of his daughters smiling for the first time and “the delight of once again being home”. The song is unexpectedly poignant for two reasons. First, it comes two tracks after “Annie’s Box”, which details Darwin’s emotions in the aftermath of another daughter’s death at the age of ten. Second, it’s the first time a single track weaves together the two narratives, offers a memorable chorus, and highlights rhythm over ambience.

From here through the end of Tomorrow, the music grows more memorable and inviting. “Seeds” is a surprisingly upbeat song based on a pulsing synth rhythm. Collaborator Mt. Sims brings the opera to the dance floor and allows The Knife to reference some of the icy pop tracks of Silent Shout, such as “Like a Pen” and “Neverland”. The last four track tracks are closer to The Knife fans know and love, though they are still steeped in the opera tradition with the powerhouse vocals.

The music unmistakably mirrors the science that hangs over the opera from start to finish. The first sounds we hear are fleeting, simple noises. Along the way, each track brings a new layer and richer compositions. It’s no mistake that the title track ends the story with a relentlessly electronic arrangement devoid of the field recordings of animals that pepper the earlier tracks. The music has grown from simple beginnings into something more complicated and advanced. The closing words say it all: “How is Charles/I haven’t heard from him for a long long time/A thousand years seem to pass/So quickly”.

The final song on the record is an alternate take of “Annie’s Track” with vocals by Andersson instead of Wahlin, which appears to be one of the deviations from the stage performance. Although it steps outside of the narrative, its haunting cello pulls us back into the pain of at the center of Darwin’s life, leaving us with notion that the personal outweighs the professional here.

You can’t adequately address the power of Tomorrow, In a Year without reading the libretto as you listen to all 90 minutes of music. To say the first two-thirds of the album are inaccessible and complicated is to belittle it. Yes, the few hooks that exist are buried deep in the music, and at times the music sounds more like John Cage compositions than electropop or opera. You might need to have it on repeat for a week or two before the music reveals itself under the recordings of rustling leaves and fauna.

If you put in the time, you will come out appreciating The Knife’s ambition and ability to deliver a noteworthy record, as well as the efforts of the vocalists and collaborators Planningtorock and Mt. Sims. Or you’ll be perplexed as to how 70 percent of this album could even fall under the category of music, much less opera. Either way, you won’t be hearing an album like Tomorrow, In a Year by anyone else any time soon–not even by The Knife if they continue to push themselves like this.

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