The Knife / Mt. Sims / Planningtorock

Tomorrow, In a Year

(Mute; 2010)

By Skip Perry | 24 April 2010

Here we are, three months after its release, and the writers of Cokemachineglow are still a bit dumbstruck: this is the Knife, one of indie music’s highest profile acts, and for most their new project is as thoroughly befuddling now as it was then. A two-disc electronic opera about Charles Darwin? “Erasmus grab a spoon”? A sphincter says what? Not to mention the inclusion of the duo’s two Berlin-based collaborators—Matthew Sims, an American DJ, and Janine Rostrom, a British multi-instrumentalist who produces audiovisual works as Planningtorock—relative unknowns even in the Knife’s most esoteric spheres of influence. The music is out there, the concept even more so; this probably wasn’t the new Knife album anyone expected.

Or perhaps even wanted. The first disc (the difficult one) initially comes across like the kind of music conceived and played by overtrained, underfed grad students on ivy-covered college campuses, advertised on pockmarked corkboards. It’s dissonant, diverse, and avant-garde (whatever that means nowadays); the primary vocalist is a classically trained opera singer and the primary instrumentalist is a classically trained violinist; there is a libretto. Constructed and paced like a one-movement symphony, the first CD achieves cohesiveness with recurring themes, but never attempts anything like pop structure or melody, instead nodding to contemporary works like Orff’s Carmina Burana in the staccato vocals of “Upheaved” or to the alto aria of Rejoice in the Lamb in the electronics of “Geology,” the effects shimmering like the organ in Britten’s cantata. This is straight-up classical music; don’t be fooled when mainstream media outlets feel the need to file it, as the BBC did, in the “dance/electronica” section alongside Groove Armada and Goldfrapp.

But then there’s the second disc, which is far closer to Goldfrapp than anything played by orchestras or string quartets. Switch the two versions of “Annie’s Box” and what’s left is 45 minutes of traditional pop melodies performed by traditional pop singers and supported by traditional Silent Shout (2006)-style backing tracks. “Seeds” destroys the recent Pantha du Prince/Noah Lennox collaboration by doing everything they do, only better: the synths are more lifelike, the vocals less thin, the tune less cloying—even the beat is more danceable. Or check the tympani buildup of “Colouring of Piegons” (impeccable) and the drums of the title track (which echo and thwack like “We Share Our Mother’s Health”): this kind of is the Knife album people want, except with an opera singer or cello chiming in every once in a while.

So yes, Tomorrow, in a Year is still endowed with incredible music that people will probably want to hear. The challenge is getting from the amorphous, atonal part to the unified, euphonious part, and like both Darwin’s decades-long discovery of the theory of evolution and the theory itself, it’s not something that can happen instantly. Here, though, it tries: the break takes place not between discs but during “Variation of Birds,” in which frenetic bursts of noise become—sigh: evolve into—the backbone of an almost Radiohead-esque 4/4 pop-rock track. The initial realization of what’s happening is one of Tomorrow’s best and most visceral moments, but together that and the host of pleasant, accessible moments that follow feel jarring nonetheless. This is a growth and transformation that should have happened gradually over an hour and a half, not with one ingenious yet ultimately miscalculated vocal entry.

There’s probably a lesson or deep insight here that I’m missing—perhaps there’s no smooth way to transition from primordial goo to sentience or from ignorance to the first pangs of knowledge. Though it’s practical in execution, Tomorrow, in a Year is not a practical record in terms of gaining an audience or keeping its attention. Finely wrought themes aside (replete with a careful balance between Darwin the man and the grand ideas he unlocked), it flunks the cohesiveness test, libretto or no, destined to sit forlornly on the shelves of most of the people who sent it to the top 10 of the Billboard electronic list, unplayed and unloved. But it’s a remarkable record for the simple reason that it was made by a bunch of people who are really fucking good at what they do. One of the great head fakes in modern music, it’s a record that requires decision at almost every moment: to endure, to become involved, to grow alongside. Call it the new evolution.