Jenny Hval speaks through her voice and that of a collection of female collaborators on her seventh album The Practice of Love. One of them happens to have a speaking voice that would make David Attenborough drop dead with envy. “Look at these trees, look at this grass,” Vivian Wang implores us in a careful, confident tone as The Practice of Love roars into action with “Lions”. Once a throb of bass enters, so rich and satisfying, we immediately relax our muscles and prepare to luxuriate for the next 33 minutes. We understand what Hval’s doing. The kind of voiceovers that usually tell us to look inside ourselves and find inner light here serve as conduits for some of the Norwegian musician’s headiest ideas.
Produced by Hval and Lasse Marhaug, The Practice of Love draws from the most spiritually inclined strains of electronic music. That’s notably trance but also the downtempo new-age of acts like Enigma, the comedown club music of the Orb, and the work of pop artists like Kylie Minogue and Madonna who tune their ears to the electronic underground. It’s not an entirely sincere appropriation. Hval calls the trance she uses “trashy”, albeit in a “beautiful” way. But Hval wants this music for its uplifting properties: a centering bass, slow and unpredictable builds, and those massive synth chords that scrape the sky with their grandeur. First and foremost, The Practice of Love sounds good. Then it goes for the head, exploring childlessness, female bonding, the role of women in society, the meaning of being an artist, and love not as a feeling but as a conscious and sustained action—a practice.
Pop this conceptual can come across as august, as with similar works by Julia Holter and Laurel Halo, but what makes The Practice of Love so accessible is its mischief. Hval is provocative in a good-natured and funny way. “I wrote my first poem / With my hand on my skin / And my hand between my thighs,” she sighs on “High Alice”. It’s an amazingly tactile image, one of many on The Practice of Love from the “porous brown topsoil” Wang describes on “Lions” to the cream a woman rubs on her belly on “Accident”. It’s also the kind of language people candidly employ to shock, much like “I used to dream of fucking before I knew how” on “Ashes to Ashes”. Recall that the first line many of us heard from Hval’s mouth, on her 2014 breakthrough Innocence Is Kinky, was “that night I watched people fucking on my computer”.
The love on The Practice of Love isn’t romantic, and men are absent, but sex is everywhere, and Hval is endearingly bemused by it. This is her first album since finishing the novel Paradise Rot, where she writes as a teen girl, and she shows a bit of teen-like pride at occupying the margins of society. In her case, it’s as a childless woman in her late 30s, eschewing the role patriarchal power structures would have her play with equal parts glee and introspection. Speaking through Australian artist Laura Jean on the title track, Hval expresses her concern that, having not had kids, she’s resigned to a supporting or antagonistic role in the drama of human evolution: “the talking tree” or “the witch”, not the “princess”. But isn’t an antagonist imperative to making a virus stronger?
It’s a big idea, but you don’t need to understand how viruses work or pick up a book on microbiology to get what she’s going at. That’s what makes The Practice of Love so easy to connect with. Hval presents her concepts and concerns in simple, likable, sometimes bawdy language. Then not only does she leave it to us to sort through it all but makes that process alluring, largely because the album sounds so good and is short and is a pleasure to listen to. This is head music in more ways than one, and listening to The Practice of Love is just as enjoyable as making sense of it once it’s over. I’m still far from the bottom of this thing, but the journey there is something I look forward to.