Jehnny Beth’s (Savages) solo debut feels like a really good book. Each track gives you a deeper dive into a complex and multifaceted, destructive character. The conflict between the cranial and physical lays out a gripping melodrama as the two vie for control. Beth’s narrative and sentiment echo that of Mr. Duffy in James Joyce’s The Dubliners , who “[…] lived a short distance from his body”. The separation of thoughts and urges, need and want, mind and body is a thick and troublesome vein at the center of To Love Is to Live.
If To Love Is to Live had to be described by a single word, it would be ‘oxymoron’. Beth’s very human conflict is tackled in a truly Shakespearean fashion. Shakespeare famously had a passion for the oxymoronic. When Romeo cries out “Oh Loving Hate!”, or when Lennox acknowledges MacBeth’s actions in “pious rage”, or the “joyful trouble” that MacDuff inhibits when hosting King Duncan, each points toward a confused but amplified truth. These paradoxes show the duality of our emotions and actions. Beth’s oxymoronic musings are on innocent sex, natural luxury, and fragile strength.
The album is a journey, a guided meditation on sex, love, lust, friendship, and want. Beth takes you by the hand. Both your heart and your mind are thrust into her microcosm on a mission of discovery and contemplation. It begins softly with opener “I Am” — a spoken, disembodied voice that begins with “I am the voice no one can hear” and ends saying, “I’ll take one more breath”, before giving way to Beth’s intense and frightened vocals. Meanwhile, an Angelo Badalamenti-esque soundscape of reverb-drenched sul ponticello strings calmly scores a foreboding and empty void which intensifies and follows Beth’s brittle lyrics into her fragile and frenetic “burning” mind.
Throughout To Love Is to Live , there are many more moments of tumultuous transcendental beauty. But most striking is a trio of songs near the center of the album. “We All Sin Together”, “A Place Above”, and “I’m the Man”, all show the lyrical and musical diversity with which Beth can tackle her emotions. The whole album is worthy of great praise, but this confused little tryptic encapsulates the album’s sentiments and real quality.
“We All Sin Together” is an emotional riddle. The song’s narrator struggles with humanity’s worth, the refrain and title can be read as a misanthropic and damning view of our collective ills or as an acknowledgment that we are all equally fallible and in need of collective support and ablution. Beth’s melodies dance over an industrial jazz backdrop not too dissimilar from the music of GoGo Penguin. Her vocal delivery has a great deal of authenticity to it; her imperfections are her arsenal as with Kim Gordon and Anna Calvi. The track is careful with its manipulation of musical forces; such quiet dynamics make the slightest crescendos feel important and cathartic. The thin texture leaves vast open pauses of calm emptiness and reflects Beth’s hollow feelings. For me, this is the real highlight of the album, a truly beautifully crafted and thought-provoking piece of music.
“A Place Above” features a cold soliloquy delivered by actor Cillian Murphy. The writing here is superb. Initially, Beth withholds all music, and your attention is isolated to Murphy’s poignant delivery. Slowly the music returns, softly it sneaks up on you. The solo piano accompaniment offers a smooth and empathetic atmosphere for the libretto. However, a rising ostinato of percussion and bass boils like blood reaching its peak until… all immediately fades.
Out of the silence and anticipation built on “A Place Above”, the album’s lead single crashes into view. “I’m the Man” is the first point in the album that we feel true fury. The withstrain and tempered nature of the previous songs have all built to this. Beth’s confusion and anger have been sitting in soft acrimony, waiting to relent with full abandon. With a quiver to her voice, Beth declares in syncopated contempt. The frenzied drums rally out as if this could be their only moment for catharsis and synths wail and scream as though contorted. The most frustrated track on the album similarly has the most frustrated and cacophonic accompaniment. Beth’s cries cannot be deciphered as fearful, empowered, rage-filled, or an oxymoronic mixture and shifting between all three. The delivery is a real, dramatic treat.
Jehnny Beth’s attempts to decode the multifaceted complexities of existence are expertly realized in
To Love Is to Live. The inward-looking emotional paradoxes and her open fragility that lays bare her insecurity are refreshingly honest. Like a good book, this album is hard to put down, and one listen does not quite satiate; a second and third is necessary. To Love Is to Live is an emotional essay in which Jehnny Beth has created one of the most compelling and sincere albums of the year so far.