A Drug Dealer in Mantua

There’s something about his person that suggests he is waiting to die. Perhaps he is not aware that he is, specifically, waiting; by now, he swims so deeply in his drugged haze that any impending mortality is just a tint, a faint color on the edges of his life, a dark current that seems to move under his feet; it’s rather that the subtle murmurings of his wares occupy his mind, which struggles as it focuses on empty air, all his thoughts turned inward. Does the addling potency of his salves and poisons extend its power beyond the bottles, enseaming the air around him, rerouting his thoughts, tethering him to his trade? Or does his confusion come from another place – that his father, also in the business, was more practiced than him and understood more of the ancient art, bequeathing his knowledge and his books to a less skilled son, who apes and imitates, brewing the old formulas with exactitude, but remaining dimly aware that the deepest he plunges into the mysteries of these potions is shallow indeed? The workings of his mind immure themselves in this labyrinth of discovery. They are hostile to other notions, which are dead ends in the twisted maze of his purpose. He does not think of the future, which is uncertain (if not a fiction).

In a few moments, he will confront an apparition – young and strong, but in despair: another man at an extremity of human life. This one is charismatic and important. He has both a future and a past (a beginning and an end). He can change himself: he was once a lover, but is now just a mourner, which is what every lover becomes eventually. This sometime lover’s writhing, live flesh, contorted by grief, his manic, frenetic desperation, and his compulsion of want all make an alarming vision for the drug peddler, on whom a starving frailness and fragile cargo enforce a grave slowness. The dealer takes care not to disturb the bottles that clink in hidden places on his person. In some pocket of the stained leather apron, or in a vial that hides in his pants hem (scratching his bare feet), or in the left pants pocket, or in the right, or in the folds of his robe, there is the worst poison, the draught that, once drunk, gives the drinker no more time to live than if he’d pulled the trigger of a gun aimed at his head. Indeed, this is precisely what this living spectre, a picture of grief whose name is Romeo, has asked for:

Hold, there is forty ducats: let me have
A dram of poison, such soon-speeding gear
As will disperse itself through all the veins
That the life-weary taker may fall dead
And that the trunk may be discharged of breath
As violently as hasty powder fired
Doth hurry from the fatal cannon’s womb.

Marveling, the audience observes what the apothecary in his drug haze has failed to notice: Romeo in his seach for a lethal instrument has neglected completely the knife that hangs at his side. Could there be an easier and more expedient way to loose life from one’s body? Rather than trying to convince this wretch, who stubbornly refuses to commit a capital crime even at the threshold of starvation, Romeo could already be on his way home to the mausoleum where Juliet lies, the instrument of suicide echoing his trembling heart as it jostles in its bonds there strapped against his thigh. Maybe he lacks resolve. After all, taking a drink is casual and completely ordinary, and its mundanity provides an easy mean of death to any one who can forget for an instant the nature of what’s in the bottle. But plunging a blade into your abdomen is forbidden by all kinds of instinctual resistances. Another possibility is that Romeo isn’t carefully considering what that moment will be like in Juliet’s tomb. In fact, most of the plan is improvised from the very start:

Well, Juliet, I will lie with thee tonight.
Let’s see for means – O mischief, thou art swift
To enter in the thoughts of desperate men!
I do remember an apothecary, —

In the moment of searching, as Romeo’s brain racks itself for the particular passage that will convey him from life, a multitude of other past events align in his head, and they offer their details and circumstances to his cause. He remembers the countless hours spent alone in his room with the shades drawn, where the deprivation of his senses soothed his ravening desire. He remembers the circuitous walks around the public areas of the city, avoiding the streets where an errant word could ignite some duel of swords and emotions. He remembers Mercutio’s death and the agony of anger and loss. Blasted by grief, orderly thoughts leave Romeo’s brain to the ready improvisation of desperation. More appealing to the wild tumble in Romeo’s head is the promise of death provided by an apothecary’s euthanasia than an instrument of bloody murder. It’s useful to think of that choice as the result of the huge anger that Romeo used to destroy Tybalt, who was the best swordfighter in Verona until two days prior. In the lover’s single experience with fighting, arriving at the death of a dear friend, he learned that the violence of knives is an awful, intense proof of life until (and unless) in a moment of combat the last breath escapes one’s body. Fighting innervates the muscles and quickens one’s heartbeat. It spills blood. In a pattern of tension and relaxation of the body’s instruments, it makes the full electric sensation of life – for Romeo in that instant, chiefly grief – live in every channel of the body. It is the wellspring of thousands of individual sensations, and each one is a compelling witness of the body’s animus. Mercutio, for one, might have been desperate for that confirmation. He turned a manufactured argument into his own youthful, passionate suicide, a sexually-charged climax in dirt and sweat. Tybalt was a one that sought similar things; he came running back from safety to be speared on Romeo’s point (no less sexually than Mercutio, perhaps). The others (Sampson and Abram, Balthasar and Gregory) dare one another to ignite the brawl that they are desperate for but lack the courage to start themselves. The ‘lord’ Capulet’s fingers itch to bruise his wife and his daughter and (we suspect) have already shaken an infant or two to death. Do they long to die? Hard to claim, yet they seem to recognize in deadly violence some concentrated sensation of vitality, a precipice where feet and limbs are dangled continually and ever more precariously to arouse that feeling of bodily awareness that comes from great danger. In this manner, Romeo in his final hours does not seem to want to die at all, but only to be dead.

Romeo is in a frenzy, banging on the set, stomping his feet, and calling out for this peddler he needs: “What ho! a-po-the-car-eeeeee!” Often enough the performance is a bit showy, if only because this theater is small and we know the apothecary is right there, watching just out of sight behind the curtain. However, one sometimes-underappreciated geometry of acting is that when someone onstage is calling for someone offstage, the unseen actor has the power to wait as long as he wants before entering. Sometimes when cues are forgotten and these kinds of mistakes happen by accident, which isn’t so rare in fringe theaters, the audience is treated to a moment of somewhat barer truth than any of the planned scenes elsewhere in the play. Especially when it comes right after this display of extreme want, some voice (if not the audience) silently asks the stranded performer: “That’s great. What else have you got?” In response, Romeo will often demur and just keep calling, louder and louder, pleading for his scene partner to come on, afraid to derail from the track on which all his actions run. Occasionally, however, in this interstice, a present and alive actor will find himself dangling off the same precipice that Romeo and the other Verona youth do when they fight, hanging with completely embodied life, the immediate moment totally unplanned. The actor looks around, waiting for the next beat (of the play, of his heart), and he sees a theater, expectant faces, the audience. All present hear his heavy breaths. The audience looks back at him. They share his fear and they relish it, and as long as Romeo stays Romeo, scared and alone in the dark, and does not become an embarrassed actor, the audience doesn’t become embarrassed either. The rapt audience is dangled too, and they notice their aliveness. In this performance, as a spot-lit actor and Romeo simultaneously in one body peer into the darkness, a gaunt and dirty face materializes in the light’s margin, and speaks.

Who calls so loud?

“Who is it making all this noise?” but also, “What sort of person can cry with such strength in the world of silence?” We hear the second question in the first because by waiting, the apothecary has isolated and distilled Romeo’s vitality; he has bottled it inside the transparent walls of the stage, like one of the distillments on his person. By asserting a structural power in the flow of this performance, which is the absolute power of advancing the story, he defines all qualities of the scene moving forward: place, time, the air, the properties of the univese. Time does not pass except through his inevitable entrance. The apothecary appears as a rasping voice and a thin face all, a stooped figure with sunken eyes and trembling hands, a skin sack half-full of bones animated only by the convulsions of sickness and cancer. His abominable health cannot be over-emphasized in his manner and features, because the more deathly a companion it is to Romeo’s easy vigor, the more stark and isolated will Romeo’s pulsating body be. The audience is exhilarated when Romeo astonishes at the contempt and beggary that hangeth upon his back, the need and oppression that starveth in his eyes. They shares Romeo’s revulsion and his fear. It’s the same fear that causes us to distance ourselves from the decrepit and deformed in our daily lives. By asking for a poison that will instantly relieve him from life and its attendant sensations, Romeo actually asks to bypass the inevitable bodily decay that is the fate of all who die of age or sickness, and which the young cannot imagine suffering. The possibility of feeling even briefly these specific sensations of wasting and ebbing, as for example in one bleeding to death, are intolerable to Romeo. If the romance of the young lovers is marked by immaturity, it is the immaturity of being unable to accept pain.

Romeo and Juliet was first published in the first quarto of 1597, and was therefore likely performed for the first time in the years just prior; Shakespeare was known to be in London by 1592, and the theaters were closed for plague from 1592-1593, ending a run of Henry IV. A quarter of London’s population had been lost to plague some thirty years earlier, and it recurred periodically until the Great Plague of London in the next century. 10,675 deaths were recorded in the 1592 outbreak, in a city of some 200,000. Everyone in attendance at a performance of Romeo and Juliet knew someone who had died from the disease. The play conjures repeated vigorous lives cut short by violence to manifest in only moments the destruction of families that the plague brought; in this way, its performance in Elizabethan times constituted a bringing to light and collective witnessing of an omnipresent grief.

Business is slow. When his father was alive, there was always a customer being served in the shop, plus one or two others waiting among drying herbs, disembowelled creatures, and colored powders. Ten years ago, the time when his dad finally became the memory of a funeral rather than the memory of a man, the stream of customers had slowed to a trickle, with at most two or three per day. Now, customers are even less frequent. Eight in a month is very good business, one or two is bad. How did he find himself here? The concoctions seem as powerful. Has general interest in these arcane tools waned? Has he specialized too far, too concerned with poisons and with mind-alteration? He could still cure a headache or a case of boils, he thinks. If he were to be asked.

He hears the knocking first. Someone hammers on his door, then yells out for him by the name of his trade, then claps repeatedly and loudly. The stranger knocks again. The noise cracks fissures in the apothecary’s mind and blows his thoughts into a rough chaos, a house of cards defeated completely by a draft. As the calls of this unnamed person build, so does the intensity of the apothecary’s vision of him. The caller’s eyes, yet unseen, already bore past his frail walls. In a suffusion of terror and anger, the apothecary appears and demands the identity of the hidden roars. For the first time in many years, he is scrutinized. Romeo finds in this man’s obvious poverty the means to argue for what he wants, which is to trade his earthly wealth for that most precious distillment:

Art thou so bare and full of wretchedness,
And fear’st to die? famine is in thy cheeks,
Need and oppression starveth in thine eyes,
Contempt and beggary hangs upon thy back;
The world is not thy friend nor the world’s law
The world affords no law to make thee rich
Then be not poor, but break it and take this.

The drug peddler steps away to retrieve the poison, but he doesn’t look on the shelves or in the medicine chest. He is looting his person for bottles: an amber one in the left pocket of his leather apron, a black flask wrapped in tattered papers in the right. A thin jar of clear glass with a dark sludge inside leans out of the pocket of his shirt. They are all wrong. He finds a vial with a tiny cork in the hem of his pants, but returns it to its place after peering at it closely for a long moment. He “finds” the amber bottle again and moves it to a different hiding place. He knows what he is looking for. He remembers the black day when he precipitated it and could not find the courage to throw it away. Finally he senses an unseen weight in one of the hidden folds of his rags, and pulls out a small, chipped flacon stoppered with wood and wax. He holds it to the light. The powder inside has dusted the interior, and it filters the stage light like a dusty window does a sunbeam. He already knows it is the right one.

Put this in any liquid thing you will,
And drink it off; and, if you had the strength
Of twenty men, it would dispatch you straight.

Each actor in a play has not only complete knowledge of how a story will end, but also a detailed knowledge of both the events for which his character is not a witness and the mechanisms by which they are staged. Unfortunately for actors, theater thrives when it is suffused with possibility: the surprise of not knowing what is coming next, or how events will thereafter unfold. Executing a compelling performance is in large part a process of un-knowing what is known; of emptying the mind of all preparation and expectation so that when a line is said or a sword is swung, one must look to one’s brain for a reaction the way a person does in ordinary life, and then choose the correct one because rehearsal has identified and made specific that possibility among the many changing and less-defined other ones that some scenario might generate. When the apothecary takes out his vial of poison, his desire to tell Romeo of its terrible power manifests spontaneously in Shakespeare’s lines even as he sells it. But the actor, too, remembers a line he heard earlier in the play, as he wandered backstage, a line cried out in grief, reaching out unwittingly toward Romeo:

Some twenty of them fought in this black strife,
And all those twenty could but kill one life.

Romeo alone killed the most precise and practiced swordsmen of Verona’s street brawls. Tybalt was known to a pitiless fighter with perfect form, who spent at least as much time refining his swordsmanship as Romeo did wandering forlornly in the streets after dark. How did he lose to Romeo? Does some extreme quantity of fury and grief compensate for a lack of skill? Does intensity of passion and depth of feeling matter most? Or was Tybalt’s ability overblown, just part of Mercutio’s elaborate mockery of him? The actor playing the apothecary wonders these things. When he speaks, he sees a wild lover already unravelled by sorrow, and his actor’s outside vantage point furnishes him with an additional, supernatural knowledge of Tybalt’s killer, which the apothecary only knows as the frail boy before him. He speaks of the overwhelming power of his drugs using an idle phrase – don’t worry, you could be twenty times greater than you are and this would still kill you instantly – that acquires a double meaning through this rememberance of overhearing Lady’s Capulet’s line. The repeated words are both mundane, and they simultaneously conjure, deride, and deny the possibility that Romeo’s strength, his vitality, is in any way extraordinary – that although we might allow the protagonist to cheat death for narrative convenience once or a thousand times, or that he might fake it masterfully at Juliet’s tomb so that he can then be revived to tell his story several times a week for a month-long run, what is inside the bottle cannot be evaded by anyone. Of this the apothecary is certain.

The never-ending cycle of time and wordly events is instead for him a spiral. Last week (or was it a month ago?) when he met Romeo, his starvation wasn’t so advanced that the feasts of bread, meat, and fruit he buys with his newfound wealth should have failed to revive his body, and yet. And yet. Some invisible barrier exists between his blood and the very real nourishment that he consumes. The food tastes rich, it gives him energy, but still his life-force (a soul?) is tugged gently and persistently away from his body, rank disease having already made his organs too weak a vessel to carry health. He does think of the future now, which manifests as a seemingly-perpetual cloudiness of the sky, where tendrils of distant storms or wide, slate-gray plains are drawn into an abyssal gyre above his head. This central eye he does not look at, although he knows that it is a private vision of the blackness that he will encounter, soon, and hug in his arms.

(These are the thoughts that occur to me, night after night, as I wait in the wings, about to meet the lover Romeo who seeks the poison that will end his life.)

Open My Country

Discussed in this essay:
  • Trouble Will Find Me (The National: Matt Berninger, Aaron Dressner, et al. 2013)
  • Shaking the Habitual (The Knife: Karen Dreijer Andersson, Olaf Dreijer, et al. 2013)
“…in Italy, for thirty years under the Borgias, they had warfare, terror, murder and bloodshed, but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci and the Renaissance. In Switzerland, they had brotherly love, they had five hundred years of democracy and peace – and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock.”

—Harry Lime in The Third Man

I

It’s tough out there for white American guys. Expectations are high. The price of the best first-class berth on spaceship Earth is that society – and by that we chiefly mean other white American guys – is pretty quick to turn on you if you don’t seem to be availing yourself of all the benefits: wealth, power, respect, fear, the obedience of others. Every white man in America is expected to enjoy these things and as much of everything else as money can buy. Which, at the capstone of the socioeconomic pyramid, you are expected to have a lot of. Not for the purchase of flashy frivolities – that’s for the other male races, the seekers, the triers, the movers-on-up – but for the distribution of patronage and the projection of power in the form of providing for others. If an Englishman’s home is his castle, an Americanman is expected to be the castle himself: an entity which both envelops and makes possible the domestic; upon whom others can depend, can draw out of a limitless reservoir of strength.

And solid though they may appear from the outside, the walls of fortress Americanman are hollow with angst and battered by the loneliness and precariousness of that dependence – of his wife and kids, in the classical formulation; of the company, of the relatives: everyone needs a piece, financial, material, emotional, of something that is expected to continually replenish itself under its own power with no help from outside. For about a hundred pop music years, the soundtrack to this terrible privilege has been The National, whose music thrusts with the necessary outward virility of postmodern Americanman while their lyrics scream his panic:

I carry the dollhouse safe on my shoulders
Through the black city, nightlights are on
in the corners and everyone’s sleeping upstairs
All safe and sound, all safe and sound
I won’t let the psychos around
I won’t let the psychos around

or

All night I lay on my pillow and pray
For my boss to stop me in the hallway
Lay my head on his shoulder and say
“Son, I’ve been hearing good things”

Both of these are from Alligator (2005), the moment in their oeuvre when Americanman’s stage boner probably came closest to being a sword for him to fall on. Taken out of context, the lines of the first quotation, from Mr November, seem like the hardest of hard-man trumpetings that he has everything under control here. But consider why he repeats himself at the end of the stanza, and then notice the refrain that immediately follows it:

I won’t fuck us over, I’m Mr November
I’m Mr November, I won’t fuck us over
I won’t fuck us over, I’m Mr November
I’m Mr November, I won’t fuck us over

This isn’t a boast or a war-cry, it’s a mantra, a desperate prayer uttered under the narrator’s breath: Please don’t let them notice that I have no idea what I’m doing. What does Americanman lay awake at night (in the second song quoted above, “Baby, We’ll Be Fine”) hoping for? No – sorry – this is America – praying for? What does he want most in the world? Not just the approval of his boss, but approval coupled with outward signfiers of affection. And those are more imporant; they come first. After the family is safely tucked in bed and the ‘night lights are on in the corners / and everyone’s sleeping upstairs’, family-Americanman is so hollowed out that he can only moved by the emotional overtures (‘lay my head on his shoulder’) of even more powerful Americanmen. He could never be the one to reach out, to nuzzle, or to express these needs in broad daylight. He – and this is the essence of Americanman – has something to prove.

II

Sweden, in case you didn’t know, or in case your image of it was colored in by the tropes that their Eurovision halftime number wonderfully and with surprising arrogance at an enormously sensitive time condensed into a single blissful montage, is on fire.

The causes are multifaceted – neither immigration nor unemployment nor poverty is alone sufficient to cause a riot – but what happened in Sweden this summer is just another eruption of a toxic cocktail that bubbles under Europe all the time, seeping out variously in London, in the Paris suburbs, in Greece, and even sometimes Germany (though they’re better at leveraging their ancestral brutality to plug the dike). The toxic cocktail is a combination of inequality (status, money, discrimination) and the demand that Europe makes of its outsider populations that they conform while at the same time denying them any chance of ever achieving that conformity: you must become Swedish to live here, goes the thinking, but it is impossible for anyone not born to Swedes with blond hair, blue eyes, and a silver Ikea screwdriver in his mouth to ever be Swedish. Every outsider in Europe stands, mutatis mutandis, in front of the same cliff.

Let’s sweep aside Americanman’s problems from Part I by saying that Americanman can go lay his heavy crown-wearing head on a psychiatrist’s couch if he’s so worried about society not letting him express his precious affection deficit to his satisfaction. As real as his dilemma is, and as much as I personally like the music it produces with Matt Berninger as the bard of put-upon Americanmen from Allston to Ypsilanti, it’s probably fair in view of what’s going on. The country is on fire.

One person – two people – who can’t take it anymore are Karen Dreijer Andersson and her brother Olaf Dreijer, who are, by current events, snapped out of their examination of more fashionable expensive-fundraiser social problems (Like a Pen) and quite entirely out of the party mode of their even earlier work (Heartbeats) and into a new album which begins with what is quite frankly the finest six minutes of music that The Knife have ever produced. Here’s how it begins:

Under this sun
Look what we have got
And those who haven’t
Bad luck
We’ve been running ’round
Pushing the shopping cart
January 2012
Even in the suburbs of Rome

Look on our wealth, ye lowly, and despair. Interesting is that even as they protest the boasting excesses of the society they live in, they admit their own complicity: we is a broader accusation and a deeper confession than self-centered Americnaman is capable of. And the dagger sticks so perfectly: the crime – our crime – is constituted by ‘pushing the shopping cart’. For all the ruthless efficiency of empires past, the modern European citizen – sorry – this is Europe – consumer – can oppress the world from the comfort of the airy aisles of Ikea, perusing what all the shitty human underclass has toiled to lay at his card-wielding feet.

Border’s lies,
the idea of what’s mine,
a strange desire
Drawing lines with a ruler
Bring the fuel to the fire

Conquest doesn’t happen by lines moving on a map anymore. Rumsfeld knew that: it happens in ‘hearts and minds’: in the broken will of the poor, the black, and the female; made possible by the pleasure-intoxicated indifference of the privileged watching Netflix (now available in Scandinavia!) on the wall of Plato’s cave while the decisions – the lines drawn by rulers (double entendre of the year)–are made somewhere else.

Karen seems a bit upset about this, and her outrage climaxes at what I think, even though it comes in the first song, is probably the most important moment in the album. It’s at the end of the quotation above, which I have sort of mislead you by rendering in sober print like that. She doesn’t sing ‘bring the fuel to the fire’; she reaches the peak of the diatribe that “A Tooth for an Eye” undoubtedly is, and, frustrated with reading Sweden and Europe the riot act, explodes in outrage:

Drawing lines with a ruler
Bring the fuel to the fiiirrrrrreeeeeeeeeeaaaaaaaAAAAARRRRGGGGHHHH

That scream is important because of what fuels it: outrage, striving, and action are all products of (and only of) suffering; and even bold pronouncements about the abolition of injustice are spoken by the voices of its victims. Consider this, from Jürgen Habermas’ On the European Constitution:

In this day and age, it is impossible to read the words “No one shall be subject to torture or cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment” (Art. 5, Universal Declaration of Human Rights) without hearing the echo that rings through them: the cries of countless tormented and murdered human beings. The invocation of human rights lives on the outrage of the violated at the loss of their human dignity.

Shaking the Habitual rattles with the screams of immigrants, women, workers, and the poor; offers an invitation to deconstruct whole skyscrapers of oppression. It is difficult to listen to; it is, at moments, ugly, harsh, and hard work. But then again, so is sewing H&M jeans in Pakistan for 18 hours a day.

III

Meanwhile, back in Vegas, or at the Western White House, or at this great new bar I just discovered in Brooklyn, Matt Berninger has said something alarming: The National “don’t have to prove their identity anymore.”1 This is troubling because, even as good as Americanman has it, his entire essence is that he must urgently, constantly prove himself.

What does it sound like when Americanman no longer feels the need to assert his dominance? The force of songs like Mr November is that even the insecure narrator, trying so hard to convince himself, rides across the spectrum of sound on a triumphant, take-no-prisoners melody that combines the shock and awe of Americanman’s prime positon with the stonewalling inarguability of closing movie credits. Unmotivated to claim dominance, Americanman withers. I Should Live in Salt, the first track of the new album, is limp, without force or even tension. The slow dad rock songs like Demons and Heavenfaced lack the overconfident sleaze of their ancestors like Karen or Slow Show, which could be the soundtrack to every sex scene involving a straight white American man with a college education.

At its worst, Trouble Will Find Me is just plain lazy, exhibit A and B for which are the songs Fireproof and I Need My Girl, one of which you can sing to the music of the other, like the anthems of East and West Germany. Which isn’t to say that the old National doesn’t peek through: for about 9 minutes, on Graceless and Pink Rabbits, they rediscover their striving youth and lay down two genuinely manly tracks. But mostly, Trouble will Find Me, is streamlined, spit-polished, and car-commercial-ready; or, to be less charitable about it, overproduced and boring. Berninger’s baritone is now a whole octave higher on average than it was on Alligator: testosterone, after all, is the hormone of both hardons and baldness. The Dessners’ music has all the edgy throb of a Vegas lounge act on a rainy Tuesday lunchtime in February.

I’m going to follow Americanman on his journey from the young man and his date at the reception in Apartment Story out of that rosy-minded fuzz and into the rest of his life: they are married, financially more secure, even if they still owe money / to the money / to the money they owe, and as the words TEN YEARS LATER appear on the bottom of the screen, Americanman puts down the New York Times, where he has been reading about how intense the competition is to get in the good private high schools. He is worried about whether Leo and Emma are going to be able to get in, so he calls his bandmates for a writing session, to put their angst into song. Everything is just perfect. This is the album that comes out.

We still dance on whirling stages

Seeing the Knife

Discussed in this essay:
  • The Knife (Karen Dreijer Andersson, Olaf Dreijer, et al.)
  • Berlin, Columbiahalle
  • 11 May 2013
Then the lights came on, it was all a scene
Bend back, give head it’s not pornography
If you do it with lights then it’s art you see
If you do it with a twist, yes, artistically

When I went to see The Magnetic Fields at the Babylon cinema in Berlin in 2010, there were many quiet moments of violin-tuning and sheet-music-adjusting between the songs. Magnetic Fields concerts are generally quite low-key affairs. During one of them, as Stephin Merritt was twisting the knobs of his ukelele, the voice of a young American woman surged up from the rows in front of me:

“Play ‘Love is Like a Bottle of Gin’!” she screamed.

“Shut up!” yelled Merritt. And after another second and a half of ukelele-tuning, he mumbles, “…savages.”

Why did that woman yell that? It’s a question I often ask myself when people do something I would never dream of doing, because identifying a purpose makes incomprehensible behavior comprehensible and forestalls less charitable reactions. A lot of incomprehensible behavior, at least to me, involves people screaming things. At The Knife’s concert in Berlin last night, which they opened about 35 minutes later than the advertised starting time and without an opening act to speak of (a glittering man, poodle-haired, lithe, and black-skinned, did a crowd-warming interactive dance routine he called “deep aerobics” from the side of the hall for about ten minutes before his headset mic stopped working), there was a little bit of time spent standing idly before the blue-lit stage between entering the venue and the time the concert began. This is, for those of you who have ever arrived at anything before its scheduled start time, an expected stage of the process. So why is this young man next to me screaming and whooping? Because he is excited. Why does he follow that screaming and whooping by cupping his hands around his mouth and projecting toward the stage that “WE ARE TIRED OF WAITING!!!”? The only explanantion I can find is that he is an impatient, pubescent, fit-throwing sack of shit, and that is not very charitable.

Then again, it has been seven years. (The screamer would have been, I dunno, eleven when Silent Shout was released?) But in my attempt to be charitable to the boorish people around me, I started to ask myself why people come to these concerts. ‘To see a band they like,’ right. But presumably not to lay eyes on Karen Dreijer, like you might on the Stockholm subway. If it’s The Magnetic Fields, you come to the concert to see them get out their instruments and sing and play their songs for the experience of a singlular version of them: Busby Berkeley Dreams louder, sadder, more in a church, and with more beer bottles klinking than listening to 69 Love Songs on your headphones on the way to work. And because the version, the song, you hear, disappears after it is made: having enjoyed the Rodin-scupture-beauty of the album, you come for the expensive-bouquet-of-flowers-beauty of the gig. Or at least you do if it’s The Magnetic Fields. You’d be a fool to expect that from The Knife, and just to go ahead and spoil it for you, when I came out, ears ringing, into the Berlin evening after the show, I overheard an American with a beard and a knit wool hat and tight pants complaining that “they didn’t really play any of their songs, they just kinda performed them”. Tilt your head back to stop the nosebleed getting on your keyboard.

The Knife’s show is a medical-school lecture, a dissection of the pop concert; instead of the Columbiahalle, they should have booked an eighteenth-century operating theater, so that we could all watch down from tiered seats as they took out the organs one by one. (Fans unprepared for this could have taken a cue from the latest album, Shaking the Habitual, in which they take their previous oeuvre, slice it open, and spread the entrails out over twice the length of Silent Shout.)

At first, this openness is startling: if Fever Ray performed behind a thicket of smoke and lights and plague-doctor masks, The Knife shed their hooded robes after the first number and stand there, faces plainly visible, limbs bare, lit head-on, before the audience. The lack of obfuscation is startling: is this the band whose only press photos are in makeup and masks? Whose children’s names are not publicly known? And now, they’re standing in front of me, genuinely playing instruments and looking at me with their eyes?

That is the situation, the convention, of the beginning of every concert. Of course you come to hear live versions of their songs, but you also come to see them make live versions of their songs. The Knife proceed to do it for about five minutes, until, suddenly, they stop in unison, face the audience, and hold their hands over their heads, perfectly still, and the music keeps going. At the moment they do this, the light switches from above and in front of them to behind and below, replacing the people on stage with blank silhouettes. We are not going to play our songs, the Dreijers make clear: we are going to perform them.

Well, we aren’t, strictly speaking. There are ten people on stage, and Karen and Olof can’t really be located. They are there, but other people take the lead: knowing that The Knife is a brother and sister outfit, you might mistake the frontman and frontwoman for that brother and sister, but the woman on whom the energy and the attention of the audience is focused for much of the concert – who plays out the tropes: the head-banging, the tongue-wagging, the HELLO and THANK YOU BERLIN – is not Karen Dreijer Andersson, and the man on whom she lavishes her dirty-dancing attention is not her brother. The openness is not revelation; it is transparent, but only like the surface of water, which misdirects. Karen is behind the moving spotlights on a platform on the back of the stage shaking a giant torch-shaped maraca.

Even when they established a layer of interrogation of the pop concert, they would attack it. A dance choreographed to One Hit in which the entire company participated was done to a recording of the song, ironing out any musical spontaneity and moving the performance into the physical, a series of relatively literal tableaux based on the song’s lyrics. By the end, they have moved through a song in which the dancing is done by a young, beared man with trendy hair and glasses who exists only on a canvas screen and is rocking back and forth in place (the abyss, dear audience, is gazing back at you) into one dance that consists of the entire company, back in their hooded robes, standing entirely still for the length of the song. The anticipation is agonizing, as if Dr Frankenfurter had held on to the last syllable forever.

More than many, The Knife was a band positioned to bring all 1,100 people in the Columbiahalle to orgasm at once. All they would have had to do was break one of their intros down into the unmistakeable tin pan riff that begins Pass This On, and the tidal wave of ecstasy would have resembled that vulgar scene in Scary Movie scaled up to crowd-size. For any artist, even one with a relationship to his audience that is as torturedly love-hate as Olaf Dreijer’s or Stephin Merritt’s, the temptation to do that must be incredible. Merritt routinely gives in to it, acting annoyed but lapping up every squeal fired across his bow during the intro to Papa Was a Rodeo. The Knife threw their audience very few bones – maybe only one, Silent Shout, and even it was musically indistinguishable from the “album version” (I went back and added quotation marks because I just made an ugly connection between that phrase and talking about “the movie” and “the book” of something), the dance accompanying it done to backlighting that beamed across the stage and out over the audience, blending performers and audience into a single group, all just dancing along to the same music being played over the speakers. And this was the finale: by the time it ended, The Knife was gone from the stage and the DJ in the sound booth began her post-show set. There was no bowing, no clapping, no encore, because when Silent Shout began, the concert was over: at the moment at which the audience is given what it wanted all along, The Knife cease to be performers and the audience ceases to be the audience, because if we have all come here just to hear our favorite song played, this is not a Knife show anymore.