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Jenny Hval’s The Long Sleep EP Gently Challenges Assumptions About Ambient

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A cold text-to-speech voice—a woman’s voice—reads off the titles of Spotify’s so-called “chill” playlists at a performance at Moogfest this year. Eventually engulfed by somber synth pads, the track is chill to say the least, with a transparency of intent that feels strange from a songwriter like Jenny Hval.

Across 2015’s Apocalypse, girl and 2016’s Blood Bitch, the Norwegian musician composed jarring works that use the fundamental mechanics of sound and language to confront the contradictions of intimacy within power structures. “What is it to take care of yourself?” she asks on Apocalypse, girl’s “Take Care of Yourself.” “Getting paid? Getting laid? Getting married? Getting pregnant? Fighting for visibility in your market?” Years after the album would define her as a musician committed to conceptual rigor, tracks like “The Great Undressing” and “Conceptual Romance” would blur the message into a broader expressive gesture, a smeared Vaseline gauze atop cool synths, stiff drum machines, and bleary vocals filled as much with hope and transcendence as they are aware of how naïvely this vulnerability may be interpreted.

On The Long Sleep, Hval prods assumptions about ambient music as an unfocused style complicit in structures of power. Where an interest in the affective qualities of texture, duration, and mood have been defining features of the genre since its inception, Hval recognizes that these are now often the very qualities exploited for profit by streaming platforms. “I wanted to turn music into criticism, format criticism into performance,” she says, speaking to a panel audience about her Moogfest set. “There’s also this realization that this is how capitalism works, it takes something that is very distinctly and very deeply human and makes it generic or makes it into some control mechanism. But it can also still be about lazing and chilling in the human sense… There is criticism, but there’s also beauty.”

While much of the EP relies on instrumental feeling, the sparse lyrical moments grapple with the challenge of making confrontational music in a political moment that’s still hard to make sense of. Opener “Spells” leans into the dreamy indulgence of earlier Blood Bitch material with lines about possession and ownership in the face of ephemerality. “You’ll always stan the victors / Exercising everything by tapping into nothing,” she sings, welling up with the song’s lifted chorus. Elsewhere on “I Want to Tell You Something,” Hval speaks more bluntly about her confusion and frustration with the current arts economy. “It’s not in the product, it’s not in the algorithms,” she sings in a near-whisper over synths. “It’s not something you decided. It’s not something they decided for you.”

With help from pianist Anja Lauvdal, percussionist Kyrre Laastad, saxophonist Espen Reinertsen, and a growing cast of jazz musicians, tracks like “The Long Sleep” look to the time-based nature of sound as a form of collectivity within the listening experience. From murky ambience to noise, free jazz, and beyond, Hval deploys sounds with a careful attention to feeling, building lush collages with a strategic intent further amplified in the lyrics. While ultimately smaller and less ambitious than her previous full-lengths, The Long Sleep grasps at ideas about presence, affect, and influence, recognizing the important potential of networks of all types in the lives of all who listen.

Tags: Jenny Hval