Jenny Hval Apocalypse, girl

[Sacred Bones; 2015]

Rating: 4/5

Styles: soft dick rock
Others: Richard Dawson, Maria Peszek, Lau Nau

What is soft dick rock?

However one might go about answering Jenny Hval’s initial question on Apocalypse, girl, the Norwegian artist uses her fifth album to continue investigating themes of dominance, security, and vulnerability as subjective experiences within the confines of her abstract pop. Hval’s dick is delicate in its soft state; it’s portrayed in a vulnerable light, cupped by hands and hidden from view; it’s sheltered and re-sexualized and cast into the limelight of the opening two songs. Each piece makes for a beautiful, unceremonious introduction to the otherwise private and sensitive world Hval has always dared to define. And although she hasn’t toned down her line of questioning over the past decade — “When you think of me, do you masturbate?” she asked on To Sing You Apple Trees — Hval’s approach to her central subject areas have certainly become more intriguing in the context of varying compositional styles.

Apocalypse, girl is pitched as a post-op fever dream, as a state of unease and fragility that’s introduced with a line from contemporary Danish poet Mette Moestrup. Recorded in 2014, it comes on the back of Innocence Is Kinky and Meshes of Voice, two albums that made our year-end lists in 2013 and 2014, respectively. The former saw Hval working with Kari Rønnekleiv and Espen Reinertsen in construing personal reactions to Paris Hilton’s sex tape and the AUF massacre, while her collaboration with Susanna Wallumrød came five years after the project was recorded for Ladyfest Oslo in 2009.

Apocalypse, girl straddles an approach between outrage and humor, and the conversation never veers far from an exploration of “the other” (as a citizen of elsewhere, a speaker of foreign tongue, a guest in someone else’s bedroom) and how we are typically encouraged to present and treat our own bodies within such contexts. Soft dick rock might be the proclamation plastered across Hval’s tour t-shirts, but the album is about feeling (where consequent reflexes could result in a flaccid or pert reaction or anything in between), from the genitals to the ankles, to tendons and the hair that grows beneath our skin. “Shaving in all the right places,” she pleads on “Take Care of Yourself,” as though her own physical experience is shaped by external, sometimes sacred entities that continue to fail her; they continue to yield the most paranoid and conscientious outcomes.

Musically, the album works well as a consequence of diverse collaboration, where it touches on noise, ambient, trip-hop, pop, folk, and drone. Hval permits even the most obscure of lyrical tangents to resonate through the provision of assorted aesthetic styles, which come boosted by Lasse Marhaug’s production. This sees Marhaug working alongside contributions from Øystein Moen, Thor Harris, and Rhodri Davis, in addition to his now-regular collaborator Okkyung Lee. Each artist works on transforming the album into a masterful collaboration of minds, but by doing so, Hval opens her subject and her sound up to range of styles that might otherwise seem conflicting.

The final two tracks in particular allow for some striking sequences that see Marhaug turning his hand to ambient atmospheres, which often makes for a desolate and lonely effect. Album closer “Holy Land” is an ethereal deviation, where a single, modular tone is spread across five minutes of hacked vocals and exhalation before the lyrics kick in. The pace of the track differs entirely from anything else on the album, and Hval uses that to mirror the reflective nature of her text: “I could not align with the landscape,” she says of her time in America, all amid a suite of sweeping frequencies. Her voice is assured and steady, and it contrasts the continual wave of sound pressed behind it — one has the feeling of intense contemplation and maybe even crisis, with only a string of words and the driving thud of a kick drum. The moment is powerful, as it panders toward the terminal pulse of the album, a desperately quick and irrepressible breath.

Even though such moments might be expected from Hval, here they arrive after a series of beat-driven tracks that resonate as Øystein Moen, or Jaga Jazzist jams. There is a distinctly trip-hop feel on “The Battle Is Over,” for instance, with its heated, surly percussion. The rhythm shapes Hval’s curmudgeonly musing on what she refers to as divine punishment: “Statistics and newspapers tell me I am unhappy and dying/ That I need man and child to fulfill me/ That I’m more likely to get breast cancer/ And it’s biology/ It’s my own fault.” The percussion pushes those wry and thought-provoking gestures against unwavering organ keys that complement the brilliant mixture of emotive responses. That Jazzist-scented tempo picks up a little later on the album’s climactic “Sabbath,” which uses the beat as a means of driving the track while enforcing a spine-tingling refrain. The lyrics hark to religious themes that permeate throughout, but there is always the feeling that Hval is referring to something a lot deeper than the references in her song titles or even the subjects she touches on in her lyrics.

But not only is “Sabbath” one of the most gripping and exasperating pieces that Hval has recorded to date, the track also culminates all the whisper, spoken word, and melodic pitch fluctuation used throughout. Hval frequently utilizes the flexibility of her voice to create moments of uncertainty and anticipation, which embellish the album’s effortless pace. Take her quieting tremble against the backdrop of harp strings on “Angels & Anaemia” or the ruptured ripples of “White Underground.” The album even starts with spoken word fragments on “Kingsize.” But even there, Hval uses her voice as a device for complementing the music behind it; “If you have a child, you’d better learn how to bake,” she snaps, as Okkyung Lee obscures the atmosphere with a clip of cello string before our singer retorts, “I beckon the cupcake.” The impact of that juxtaposition is phenomenal, but where some artists restrict the interpretation in their lyrics with fluctuating styles, Hval balances it perfectly. Each track seeps effortlessly into the next while bolstering her thematic interests with a sense of impending doom, a stark reminder of the looming end times referenced in the title.

To reinforce that feeling, Hval employs the use of background vocals that allow for alternate interpretations of her writing. A man shouts wildly in the background of “Sabbath” before the song’s charming refrain sets in. It emphasizes the impression that although the singer’s tone is calm and focused, there is an uncontrollable frustration tangling her thoughts and splintering her understanding of the world around her. When Hval uses her own voice to distort the scene, such as during the closing moments on “The Battle is Over,” she completely shifts the mood of the song without destabilizing her tact. “We cling on to Heaven,” she sings, and with that final word, her voice spirals into a chaotic puddle of sound that points to affirmation as opposed to disillusionment, adding yet another compelling twist to the album’s compositional structure.

What is soft dick rock?

Perhaps it’s a contradiction or an elaboration on curiosity? There is often a feeling of curiosity in Hval’s words and in her tone, as if trying to find herself outside of a preconditioned state, whether in America or in Norway, inside her body or inside her mind: “My body is a cushion,” she breathes on “Some Days,” “held up by thin wires/ And I can see myself from above/ Holding wires in my hands.” But that curiosity is balanced by her astute tonal observations, her confidence in tackling personal responses in everything from inequality to terrorism, and her ability to handle such varied instrumentation by her own band alongside guest contributors. Both her songs and her subject matter hold back from shocking the listener by virtue of their content, and yet they make a startling impact — creating a headspace that leads to nowhere in the same moment that it paves the way to salvation.

Links: Jenny Hval - Sacred Bones

Eureka!

Some releases are so incredible we just can’t help but exclaim EUREKA! While many of our picks here defy categorization and explore the constructed boundaries between ‘music’ and ‘noise,’ others complement, continue, or rupture traditions that provide new forms and ways of listening. Not all of our favorites will be listed here, but we think each EUREKA! album is worthy of careful consideration. This section is a work-in-progress, so expect its definition to be in perpetual flux.

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