The first non-jazz record I ever bought–I kid you not–was Radiohead’s Kid A. I was 16 years old then, which is probably the golden age for appreciating Radiohead. It may seem strange that my first purchase was something so experimental and alienating (at least for someone new to indie music), but that’s precisely why I was so obsessed with it. Kid A was radically different from anything I had ever heard before, and the experience of listening to it for the first time is forever etched into my memory. It was an awesome record in the most literal sense of the word: it filled me with a sense of awe and wonder at the thrilling strangeness of it. That sensation is what hooked me on experimental music, and I am always searching for yet another album which will provide me with the same shock of the new. Now I can add one more singular work of art to that list of the truly awe-some: Tomorrow, in a Year by the electronica duo The Knife (composed of a brother-sister pair, Karin Dreijer Andersson and Olof Dreijer), in collaboration with Mt. Sims and Planningtorock.
Tomorrow is the soundtrack to an experimental music opera about the life and work of Charles Darwin; in fact, his texts are used in the libretto, which fascinated me to the point that I ran out and bought a set of Darwin’s major works so I could read them while I listened to the record. The album’s greatest strength is the way it weaves the theme of evolution into the music itself, a bricolage of sonic textures in which form perfectly mirrors function. Even when the lyrics deal with deep time and the grand forces of nature, Tomorrow retains a movingly human and personal heart: the lyrics suggest the way we confront and observe our world with a sense of the sublime and a passion for exploration, with feelings of beauty and terror and awe. From start to finish, it’s an immersive, exquisitely produced work, the only double album since the Sonic Youth’s Daydream Nation that I can listen to in one sitting without skipping any tracks.
The album begins with a series of pieces whose micro-percussion, chilly ambiance, glacial drones, and industrial noise suggest geological processes before the advent of life on Earth. The uniformly excellent vocals, which range from piercing and stark to tender and heartbreaking, become steadily more prominent until life is born in the sea with “Ebb Tide Explorer.” In this lovely track, the singing and music drift and float lazily like the currents of the ocean, while in “Variation of Birds”–the highlight of the first disc–the vocals battle against a backdrop of pummeling electronic noise resembling screeches, squawks, and buzzes. “Letter to Henslow” and “Shoal Swarm Orchestra” go even further and incorporate field recordings of birdsong, rainforest sounds, and weather.
The soundscapes of the first disc, as great as they are, largely serve as a long prelude to the splendors of the second disc. “Annie’s Box,” which deals with the Darwins’ grief over the death of their beloved daughter, is a small, poignant masterpiece of plaintive vocals and a spare, melancholy viola arrangement. The ominous instrumental “Tumult” leads into the brilliant “Colouring of Pigeons,” whose rolling, clattering drumbeat and menacing strings provide the towering thematic centerpiece of Tomorrow, in a Year; it sounds like nothing I’ve ever heard before. Darwin’s great discovery is limned by wordless vocals coalescing into propulsive verses by alternating singers. “Seeds” follows with a twinkling, slippery dance beat and continues the themes of growth and metamorphosis, while the title track reprises the gravity, epic scope, and exotic orchestration of “Colouring of Pigeons,” once again lyrically connecting mankind to its animal origins. The final track (before an alternate vocal reprise of “Annie’s Box,” which underscores the biographical and emotional content of the album) is my favorite. “The Height of Summer” is a superb, joyous electronic pop song with lyrics about love, longing, and our relationship to the natural world and its cycles. Like the rest of the album, it juxtaposes our short time on Earth with the vastness of deep time and locates our presence within the intricacy and intimacy of a web of life.
Tomorrow, alas, proved to be divisive among both fans and critics for its challenging and alien sound. Having never been particularly interested in The Knife prior to this album (though I have since become an enthusiastic fan of their previous album Silent Shout and Karen Dreijer Andersson’s Fever Ray), I didn’t have the expectations and assumptions others might have held. But a more problematic criticism was that the sheer ambition and scope of The Knife’s project render it too serious and deep for everyday listening–a criticism that judges it by the wrong standards. I think this speaks more to the way that many of us listen to music today than to the quality of the album itself; when music is increasingly ephemeral (in both technological and cultural senses), few have the patience to take in something as huge and high-minded as Tomorrow, in a Year, something that dares to tangle with great themes instead of being merely fun or frivolous. And since it’s also different than any of the predominant trends in contemporary indie music, then it’s of even greater importance to appreciate it consciously in the context or tradition of an experimental classical work.
In Tomorrow, in a Year, The Knife demonstrate the courage of their pretensions, the courage to translate a wildly ambitious vision into a stunning, thrilling piece of music. Even more so, The Knife have the nerve to reinvent themselves in pursuit of their art, a talent they share with the most adventurous acts of the past and present, like Scott Walker, Talk Talk, and Radiohead. As with those artists’ masterpieces, it seems as though every stream of twentieth-century experimental music has converged into the making of an endlessly rich and rewarding record. (It’s also perhaps the single most innovative opera since Philip Glass’ seminal Einstein on the Beach.)
Only time will tell if Tomorrow, in a Year will grow to be valued as much as those artists’ masterpieces, but for now, it feels like a landmark–to my view, perhaps the greatest album of the twenty-first century to date. (I can only surmise that if it influences the stylistic direction of The Knife’s electronic dance music, then their next album proper ought to be pretty incredible, even more so than Silent Shout.) Listening to Tomorrow, in a Year instantly renders most of our critical discussions and debates about musical originality as exercises in special pleading and the narcissism of small differences. The Knife have explored the boundaries of the possible in contemporary music as thoroughly as Charles Darwin did in science one hundred and fifty years ago. If one is inclined to agree with the evolutionary biologist and public intellectual Richard Dawkins, who has written that religion does not have a monopoly on art or artistic inspiration–that we have not yet had the privilege to listen to a great symphonic work on ecology or geology or natural history–then Tomorrow, in a Year is not only the first piece of its kind but also the first work to fulfill his dreams of a masterpiece uniting music and science. And that fact, even beyond its experimental brilliance, is the highest compliment I can pay this sublime and wholly original work.