Speaking of "Hot Knives" to Lazy-I's Tim McMahan, Oberst said that his songs aren't always autobiographical. Some, like this one, are drawn from images from the world around him, overheard discussions, or minor glimpses into people's lives.
"Hot Knives" is an anthemic rock song with Bright Eyes' usual dark twist. The song employs a common tactic of Conor Oberst's songwriting: a dystopic tale of Americana told from the perspective of a particular character. The subject of the song is a woman, but, but Oberst uses her perspective to give voice to the complications of love and sex. Oberst told McMahan that the song is "about an average wife, a mother character who realized that her husband has been unfaithful to her. She goes through this metamorphosis where she has sex with a lot of people, does drugs, lives the nightlife, and eventually realizes she has to let go of her ego or what was hurting her and start a new life and shed her old existence."
The lyrics are about a woman who slips into a new sort of existence filled with fast times and wild adventures, until at last she realizes that she has to let go of her idea of who she is completely and undergo a spiritual rebirth.
The song appeared on Bright Eyes' 2007 album, Cassadega, and was the second single released from that record. Cassadega is named after a town in Florida inhabited by spiritualists and mediums. Reactions were split on the album, with some critics praising the band's interesting new direction, with others feeling that the increasing distance from the band's original sound was the mark of a musical act losing its way.
Bright Eyes played the song at their appearance on Late Show with David Letterman in July of 2007.
A live recording of the song was also released as a single in 2007, paired with a concert take of "If the Brakeman Turns My Way."