Monday, December 28, 2009
#6. 'We had a promise made'
The Knife "Heartbeats"
The Knife might be the closest thing the decade had to a stealth canon band. They had no presence at all when their debut was released and even when "Heartbeats" came out it didn't capture too much attention outside certain pockets of the internet. Then everything seemed to hit at once; Jose Gonzales did a (shitty) cover of it which landed in a Sony commercial, Silent Shout became the lone surprising #1 album of the year the Pitchfork ever chose, vocalist Karen Dreijer-Andersson started lending her distinctive pipes to essential tracks by her peers (Royksopp's "What Else Is There?" and it's remix by Trentemøller specifically) before starting up a solo project, Fever Ray, that took The Knife's electronic malaise to new levels of darkness (and once again provided the lone surprising entry in this year's Pitchfork top 10). In about 3 years the band went from minor ripple to possibly being the defining electronic act of the last half of the decade, and the song that it occurred on the strength of was only ever appreciated in a delayed fashion. Sure, the quartet of singles from Silent Shout are all relatively great, particularly "We Share Our Mother's Health," but without the doors that "Heartbeats" opened for them, be it through the mild yet exultant praise it garnered initially or the commercial success of the Gonzalez version, I doubt there would be much to talk about for the Dreijer siblings at this point. Plus there's the fact that "Heartbeats" is an absolute stunner of a song on its own regardless of its importance in their ascent.
If you got into The Knife thanks to the Gonzales cover, and let me just reiterate that it's a bad cover of a great song, the tonal shift between the two versions probably shocked the hell out of you. On its surface The Knife's version sounds just like any number of other electro-pop singles of recent vintage, like Daft Punk minus the disco touchstones or going even further back the whole big beat movement without the rock touchstones, with its clusters of synths and obviously programmed drums. then Karen Dreijer-Andersson starts singing. I don't know what exactly it is about her voice that caused me to become totally entranced by it at first, maybe the duality of its icy Nordic tone with the genuine warmth of feeling she imbues each line with, but it was definitely one of the most distinctive voices I'd heard in this sort of music. Of course 'distinctive' doesn't necessarily mean 'good' - cf Shakira - but it does meant hat my attention was drawn in to something that I may have otherwise dismissed as inessential and kinda dated. The Knife hadn't quite hit upon the darker vein that made Silent Shout so mesmerizing even in the purely instrumental moments so the sound of the original version of "Heartbeats" doesn't really jibe with The Knife we now know and have our opinion of (a few recent live versions of it correct for that, and the results might be even better than the original but that's not what we're here to talk about today) but the one defining aspect of their sound that's preserved was enough to draw me in here.
And for once, it was the lyrics and their delivery that put into my own personal pantheon. Actually, looking at my top 6 singles here there's a huge swing towards songs whose lyrics were the deciding factor in their placement, although on some levels it makes sense. After all, great lyrics can elevate a mediocre song much more easily than crappy lyrics can sink a good one, and while I'd hesitate to call "Heartbeats" mediocre on a purely musical level - not transcendent, sure, but definitely not mediocre - the lyrics are damned great. Simple, unobscured by flowery prose, universal and delivered with just the right level of emotion by Dreijer. It's a straightforward tale of a one-night stand that flowers into a full blown obsession, love blooming out of lust for at least one of the involved parties despite the tacit agreement that it was only a one time thing. And Dreijer absolutely nails the emotional part of it, the confusion inherent to telling herself that just because they shared such an intimate moment it's not going to go any further. It's in the way she revisits key phrases, the contrast between 'we had a promise made/four hands and then away' and it's lyrical twin where the second line is replaced with a pregnant pause before the swooning declaration of 'we were in love', the way each time the chorus comes in she sounds more and more assured that at the last thing she needs is help from 'hands from above'. It's those thing that make the song so resonant, and those exact things that Gonzales seems ignorant of on his version.
I don't mean to shortchange the instrumental aspects here, as Olof Dreijer does lay out a great bed of synths to compliment his sister's vocals, but it's so rare that a song grabs me strictly based on the lyrics and their delivery that I feel the need to go into a bit more depth on that side of the coin for once. I will commend him on a few choice moments, the tom fill into the second chorus punctuating the 'we were in love' declaration is particularly excellent and the analog vibe to even the most obviously digital aspects of the song makes it feel much more organic than it could have and that's a good thing in my book, but really this is Karen's show. When their darker sound came into fruition it felt more like a partnership but in these early days Olof was clearly a bit of a second banana, not that that's a bad thing by any stretch. It could just be that he knew how much of the song's appeal would hinge on the vocals and took the backseat purposely, in which case: smart move.