Jenny Hval’s latest embraces aspects of popular music while also disregarding the limiting expectations that come tied to such forms.
Now with three albums released under her own name (not including her previous two as Rockettothesky), Norwegian singer-songwriter-author-academic Jenny Hval continues to make the human body and human sexuality central to her work, but on her latest, Apocalypse, Girl, she also takes on a litany of anxieties and concerns both individual and societal. As on her previous two albums, Viscera (2011) and Innocence Is Kinky (2013), Hval embraces aspects of popular music while also disregarding the limiting expectations that come tied to such forms. Still, Apocalypse, Girl might be, musically speaking, her most concise collection of songs yet, if also the most thematically loose and diverse.
The album begins with Hval reciting a passage from Danish poet Mette Moestrup’s award-winning collection KINGSIZE. Their work shares at least a few qualities, and the words Hval reads in a voice that lands somewhere between a whisper and a come-hither feel as if they could have easily come from Hval herself:
“Think big, girl, like a king. Think kingsize. Did you learn nothing in America? I’ve placed four big bananas in my lap. In New York, I don’t dream. I always wanted to be less sub-culturally lonely, but here I see no sub-culture, no future, no big science, no big bananas, but I found no, no future. I rock the bananas gently, move back and forth. Don’t wake them. What is soft dick rock?”
Good question. Indeed, Hval has even been selling “Soft Dick Rock” shirts on her recent tour, whatever “soft dick rock” actually is.
Apocalypse, Girl returns to impressions of a visit to America (presumably Hval’s own) on the final song, “Holy Land”, a creaking, moaning, feverish trance that elapses over ten minutes, the only song on the record to exceed traditional standards of length for commercial music. “When I went to America / I could not align with the landscape / I understand why people want to be reborn / I understand why people speak in tongues… I understand it in America," Hval chant-sings, uncharacteristically serene (before her short, shivering breaths bring a sense of unease back to the song as it fades out), her voice ascending slightly word-by-word repeatedly over each line. The bookending would seem to suggest that America, at least as a broad intellectual concept if not a physical place full of diverse locations and millions upon millions of people, plays a significant role in the album, but it’s not so easy to fit such an implied framework around the abstract form of the album.
Apocalypse, Girl was produced by the lauded Norwegian musician Lasse Marhaug, whose work crosses into the realms of noise, jazz, metal, and other genres, and features Thor Harris of Swans, Øystein Moen of Jaga Jazzist, and other established improv performers along with her regular band members Håvard Volden and Kyrre Laastad. With a roster like that on paper, it would be fair to expect the album to be aggressively challenging, if not inscrutable. Though never verse-chorus-verse, these songs, their anti-structures and capricious melodies, prove accessible on their own terms. There’s nothing here as plainly gorgeous as “Golden Locks” or “Milk of Marrow” from Viscera, and altogether the artistic subversion might be more overt, but Hval’s evolution hasn’t come at the sacrifice of beauty.
Images and concepts carry over from one song to the next. “Kingsize” bleeds into “Take Care of Yourself”, which opens with Hval theatrically delivering the premise with the question “what is it to take care of yourself?” Against a backdrop of distant siren drones and cold synth lines, the “Fitter Happier” list that follows starts with the basics, “getting paid, getting laid, getting married, getting pregnant, fighting for visibility in your market…”, and gets more detailed and obscure from there. She then returns to soft dicks, seeking vulnerable intimacy with the ‘you’ of the song while still managing to make “your soft dick” sound almost accusatory.
“The Battle Is Over” then poses the exact same opening question in a whisper cushioned by a candle-lit organ and a slowly shuffling drumbeat. Musically, “The Battle Is Over” is practically ‘normal’ in its instrumentation and arrangement, something of an obvious choice for lead single amidst a collection which otherwise lives up to the expectation to jostle and frisk expectations. The subject matter can feel a little familiar at times -- “Statistics and newspapers tell me that I am unhappy and dying”, perceived societal expectations and the like – but the inspired swings and pole-vaults of Hval’s voice give it effervescent life.
Even more than the unsettlingly vivid images and intellectual confrontation proffered by her words, it is those wild shifts and dramatic declamations, the risks that Hval is willing to take with her vocal delivery, that make Apocalypse, Girl so singular. You may squirm at times, but it is almost impossible to look away.