Review: Jenny Hval Fingers the Intersection of Capitalism and Sexuality on ‘Apocalypse, girl’
Release Date: June 9, 2015
Label: Sacred Bones
“Intimacy is beyond rules — that is the very nature of it. If it’s pretty, maybe you’re not close enough.”
So begins Norwegian singer-songwriter Jenny Hval’s review of Bjork’s Vulnicura for online publication the Talkhouse; but she may as well be talking about her own spoken-sung songs. Since 2011’s Viscera (before then she released two albums of radio-friendlier ditties as Rockettothesky), Hval has unflinchingly been the one to go there, whether she’s writing about using toothbrushes as vibrators or filming NSFW music videos that feature a girl masturbating. Her latest LP for Sacred Bones, Apocalypse, girl, arrives this week with slightly less scandalized fanfare — unless you count those t-shirts. With a backing band that includes members of Swans and freeform jazz countrymen Jaga Jazzist, and thrilling newfound vocal confidence, Hval continues to cleverly connect, and explicitly comment on, matters of sex and politics on her third album.
Nestled in the center of the Apocalypse, girl is “Heaven,” which flits all over the place thematically and sonically, like fingers strumming the background harp. The sound of waves lapping transmogrifies into hypnotic violin phrasing and church-like organs as a drum pattern picks up momentum; throughout, Hval’s voice escalates wildly in pitch, comparing her age to Jesus’ and bemoaning “a graveyard of girls” with tombstones “so tall and hard” she wants to take them inside of her. It’s a stark contrast to minimal album opener “Kingsize,” decorated with just a creaking door as instrumental accompaniment, which equates phallic everyday objects to flaccid penises with the same subtlety as Björk’s heart-as-vagina imagery: “The bananas rot slowly in my lap, silently, mildly, girly.”
On gently shaken-and-tossed organ slow jam “That Battle Is Over,” she articulates genitalia references with similar aplomb. Hearing Hval say “divine cocks and cunts” is so endearing because, though she speaks with conviction, it’s still a tiny bit hesitant, as though she’s still trying to work up the courage. Like speakers on ASMR videos, her intimately lilting mouth sounds appeal on a more visceral level than Hval’s technical ability or how much she experiments with her voice. That’s why Apocalypse, girl is most beguiling when it goes further off the rails; especially with just enough instrumentation to make songs a little more melodic without losing their central identity. Album closer “Holy Land” is essentially a ten-minute drone, with Hval moaning sometimes, gasping occasionally, and offering a paragraph’s worth of words about America.
Perhaps the biggest risk she takes on Apocalypse, girl hides in plain sight on the empty, humming “Angels and Anaemia.” “Self doubt?” she begins in a quavering rasp. “It’s what I do.” Blunter speculations on music/art/writing come to follow, but her moment of Björk-level intimacy stares us in the face right there. Whether or not she’s f—king with us (again, those t-shirts), Hval’s momentary reveal is what keeps her music continually interesting, cocks and cunts aside.