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Jenny Hval engages familiar politics on new record

| Wednesday, October 5, 2016

JennyHval_banner 2LINDSEY MEYERS | The Observer

Following the release of her spectacular fifth LP “Apocalypse, girl” in 2014, Norwegian experimental singer-songwriter Jenny Hval met both high praise and sharp criticism. Her admirers found the music cathartic in its exploration of mid-life uncertainty and internal conflicts as a woman trying to navigate an often hostile male-dominated world. Those who reproached her focused precisely on this latter point: not only was her music exceedingly political, they argued, but her lyricism was whiny, inaccurate and overall absurd.

Regardless of one’s stance on the issues at hand, it seems inconsistent to criticize an artist’s decision to use their craft as a medium for self-expression, even if this is an expression of sociopolitical opinion. Often, these stances are integral to an individual’s identity and heavily inform their worldview, and this is unquestionably true of Jenny Hval’s visceral vein of feminism. While the issue has played a role in her music since the start of her career, it first came to the fore on her fourth LP, “Innocence Is Kinky.” Since then, much of her output has focused on her experience of poisonous gender dynamics in the Western world.

Her unapologetic approach to the politically-charged topic is what many fans — both women and men — find refreshing about her both as a thinker and as a musician. Raw references to female anatomy and to bodily functions that some public figures have openly characterized as disgusting ring subversive in a way that recalls the militant agitation of ’90s riot grrrl pioneers Sleater-Kinney. Of course, this means that Hval makes essentially no effort to appeal to any who would not heed her message to begin with.

On her latest record, “Blood B—-,” Hval is similarly unrepentant if not more so. This is clearest in the album’s underlying narrative: a tale of a female vampire that serves as a vehicle for an exploration of blood, especially, she told Pitchfork Music, “the purest and most powerful, yet most trivial, and most terrifying blood: menstruation.” At the very least, she is certainly not pandering to the masses.

However, if the record sounds like intimidating high art on paper, in reality it is quite accessible and worthwhile in its honesty. Opinionated listeners will proceed with caution, but fortunately Hval’s music is sufficiently compelling beyond its controversial themes. A dark ambiance drives the album forth between soft instrumentation and Hval’s own hypnotic coos. The record is by turns chilling and heartbreaking, especially on tracks like “Conceptual Romance,” in which Hval’s rhetoric is least overwrought.

Indeed, it is Hval’s insistence on belaboring certain points that can be tiresome about this record. While the record’s aesthetic differs significantly from some of the catchy indie-rock sensibilities of “Apocalypse, girl,” the lyricism of its successor is hardly innovative. Both feature much of the same comically bizarre anti-capitalist metaphors, although these feel particularly jarring when detached from the tongue-in-cheek backdrop of “Apocalypse, girl.” This occasionally unsound juxtaposition on her latest release means that Hval has a tendency to sound serious in a self-conscious way on some of the record’s key tracks.

Overall, however, Hval’s sixth LP is a worthwhile foray into a thematic field frequently explored by female musicians but infrequently to such a raw degree. One may interpret this as a fundamental flaw of her approach to craft, but I prefer to see it as the product of ideological integrity. Perhaps to emphasize her point, she is unstoppable in her resolve to honestly discuss issues important to her, even when faced with bitter backlash. Regardless of one’s political opinions, this is an indisputably courageous act.

Artist: Jenny Hval

Album: “Blood B—-”

Label: Sacred Bones

Favorite Track: “Conceptual Romance”

If you like: Susanna, Holly Herndon, Grimes

3.5/5 Shamrocks

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