Happy 15th Anniversary to The Knife’s second studio album Deep Cuts, originally released January 17, 2003.
The Knife, the sister and brother duo Karin and Olof Dreijer, have worked hard to avoid becoming pop stars. They self-released Deep Cuts and their eponymous 2001 debut on Rabid Records, their own record label. They go to great lengths to obscure their identity. Over the course of their nearly 20-year career, The Knife, and solo projects like Fever Ray, have remained capital “A” Art.
Admittedly a little scattershot, the Dreijers’ first album The Knife is interesting and charming at times, shining a light on their pop origins. A more fleshed out idea, Deep Cuts was originally released in Sweden and the UK in 2003. In 2006, after the success of the single “Heartbeats,” Mute Records released it in the United States. Over the past 15 years, it has aged into a cheeky dance album, with brazen lyrics and inventive arrangements.
The most well-known track on the album is the one that opens it: “Heartbeats.” It’s a sawing, slow moving, pop juggernaut of a song. It has been covered ad nauseum and is in the popular lexicon as background music on numerous TV shows. The lyrics, written by the Swedish siblings, are infectious. The beat is an edgy earworm, kept interesting by Karin’s haunting vocals. This single would help them gain a more global popularity, outside of their native Sweden where they are ubiquitous.
“Girls’ Night Out” is a spacey dance track, that doesn’t get much credit due to its position on the track list and relatively pedestrian lyrics. It’s not as frantic as “Listen Now,” a synthesized battle cry. Throughout Deep Cuts, The Knife undulates between campy pop and sparse techno. It’s hard to train your attention on one style.
After “Heartbeats,” the next singles contender is “Pass This On.” A Calypso/ Kraftwerk mashup, Karin sighs, “I’m in love with your brother,” in a romantic moment. The wink is still there, in the sly line, “Is he willing? Can he play?” “Pass This On” would be remixed on The Knife’s 2014 album Shaken Up, a collection of remixes of past songs. This time around it’s played in a Detroit House style, with a long intro leading up to its signature steel drums. Olof, who cheekily swaps the “brother” for a “sister,” performs the lyrics. A little too weird to ever gain the popularity of “Heartbeats,” “Pass This On” is iconic in its own right.
“She’s Having a Baby” and “Rock Classics” are haunting and down-tempo. The former is a twinkling and wistful song, like a creepier Sufjan Stevens. The latter is a swaggering track that plods along to meandering lyrics like, “I'll order a chai tea and you will have the usual au lait” only breaths before, “I’ll fuck your brains out.”
The criminally underrated “Is It Medicine” jolts Deep Cuts back to life. It’s a mid-album acid house track, with glitchy 808s and an almost monotone shriek-sing. “Is it medicine or social skill?” is a clever chorus for such a danceable track, and the entire three minutes shows off their relentless energy. It’s this catchy ear, the one that knows exactly what will move you, that is so perfectly demonstrated in their next album, 2006’s Silent Shout. It’s the reason Deep Cuts could have just as easily been released yesterday and not 15 years ago.
Even the stranger moments retain their energy over time. The inexplicable strings cover of Pearl Jam’s “Black” on “Behind The Bushes” isn’t completely unwelcome. What comes after, as the original final track, is the harshest of oddities on the whole album. “Hanging Out” is crude and atonal. It’s an uncomfortable gag, but that’s probably the point. On the re-release in 2006, “This Is Now,” “Handy Man,” and “The Bridge” are included on the US version of the album. The tracks originally appeared on the soundtrack for the Swedish film Hannah med H. All three fit well on Deep Cuts, “This Is Now” standing out as the most meditative moment of the album. “Handy Man” is a straightforward banger and “The Bridge” a drawn out techno track.
The Knife on Deep Cuts is different from the one we know now. Most tracks clock in at a tidy three minutes. They sound a little raw, occasionally unfinished. But the inventive percussions and candid lyrics are definitely there. The wincing ache in Karin’s voice and Olof’s growl are the bones of the album. Their poignant individuality sets the Dreijers apart and it began to coalesce on Deep Cuts.
Deep Cuts exists at the lonely intersection of pop and experimental. While The Knife’s relationship with pop music can be seen today in acts like Grimes or PC Music, their sound is still very much their own. Their message has consistently been anti-capitalist, either explicitly or through their transgressive vulgarity. And while a deliberate disinterest in the status quo didn’t prevent the pop hit “Heartbeats,” it earned them a spot in popular music as the über political punk kids who are too cool to try fitting in.