Jenny Hval - APOCALYPSE, GIRL

by Rob Taylor Rating:9 Release Date:2015-06-08

Jenny Hval is a free-thinking experimentalist, exploring personal experience and identity through her music. Formerly associated with the label, Rune Grammofon, known for supporting Norway’s most adventurous and creative musicians particularly in the field of experimental electronica, Hval is the kind of uncompromising artist against whom record companies stand little chance of moulding into commercial shape. 

Apocalypse, Girl is a very human work, setting out Hval’s philosophical musings on femininity, sexuality, moral conservatism, and spirituality divested of its religious dogma and idealism. On ‘Heaven’ she sings: “From the very back of the church choir I am standing/ lone alto-range/ Girl in black/ The front row clasp their hands now, they’re singing with devotion/ I separate from feelings, complex harmonic notion, harmonic notion/ What’s wrong with their voices/ I sing like this when I’m home/ I shut my mouth and ran away, spat out that neoliberal, girly heart that held no blood and made no beat, just vibrated sweetly in the chest.” 

Feeling the need to disconnect, she nonetheless craves a spiritual enlightenment removed from moral or social expectation. The same disconnect applies to any constraints brought by gender expectation, or mainstream taste. What makes Jenny Hval interesting, though, is that she doesn’t appear, at least to me, to be dogged by a need for anti-conformity. 

Hval rails against conservative dogma by re-appropriating explicit language, not to shock, but to express comfort or discomfort in her physical self. Hval has said in interviews that she likes the directness of pornographic language, and I would add that it also compliments the frankness of her self-disclosure. When she asks "What is soft dick rock?" on the quasi-narration ‘Kingsize’, she’s making the point that cock rock has no special claim to be potent, anymore than music such as hers that stimulates the mind and the body. 

Apocalypse, Girl, like the best of Bjork’s albums, is genuine artistry through free-spiritedness. The album plays with words, and uses sci-fi movie electronics to lift and transmit an extraordinary voice, a voice that appears to enter mid-octave and keeps climbing until the peak-meter has an aneurysm.

While the boy-soprano-like vocals sometimes employed on Apocalypse, Girl (see ‘Why This’) can take some adjustments (like Bjork), Hval’s voice is used to bring almost classical scope to her electronic soundscapes, and convey a full spectrum of emotion, histrionics and all. Hval has estimable choral prowess, so needless to add, it all comes off particularly well.

A measure of the excellence of this album is that, given its experiential nature, it is remarkably listenable, and occasionally ground-breakingly awesome. ‘That Battle is Over’ is the single of the year for me. With a minimalist grounding using light percussion (traditional and kettle drums) , organ, synthesizers, and vocal over-dubs, the track lies somewhere between lullaby, performance art and feminist manifesto.

By performance art, I mean to convey that Hval uses her voice with prodigious innovation, and the harmonics are so rich it seems almost obscene that the sublime can last the entire four-mins-and-36-seconds. Little wonder that she counts among her chief inspirations the performance artist Meridith Monk. Hval’s vocal reach also compares with Kate Bush, another inspiration. 

Album closer ‘Holy Land’ is nine-odd minutes of disquieting ambience insinuating, as the title suggests, a quest for spiritual enlightenment. The desperate panting at the end, for me, conveyed how easy it is to lose a connection with your spiritual self in a world circumscribed by cult belief.  

If alternative and experimental music is allowed to have its thinking man and woman’s sex symbol, then it surely must be Jenny Hval.  

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