£17.99 – LP & DL Code
Experimental singer/songwriter Jenny Hval’s work is cryptically pleasurable, prone to breeding obsession, and full of surprises. As she mentions several times throughout Apocalypse, girl, she recorded her latest album when she was 33, and like a lot of people in their Jesus year she found herself at an existential crossroads. Apocalypse, girl has plenty of what-does-it-all-mean moments—Hval reckons with longing and self-doubt, tentatively considers ideas of domesticity and traditional standards of satisfaction, and fantasizes about spiritual (or possibly even literal) rebirth—but she seems to have come out of her crisis even more committed to following the challenging path she’s chosen for herself.
Musically, Apocalypse pushes boundaries that were barely visible on her last album. For all its noisy interludes and sharply angular melodies, a lot of Innocence Is Kinky was straightforward, held down by fairly conventional arrangements of guitar, drums, and keys. Working with producer Lasse Marhaug (who met Hval when he interviewed her for his fanzine in 2014) and an ensemble of skilled improv players that includes members of Swans and Jaga Jazzist, she deconstructs her pop sensibilities while still assembling catchy and memorable compositions. There’s a dreamy kind of ambiguity to how the songs are put together: Pop melodies emerge from washes of abstract sound, and sometimes they’ll take charge of the song, but sometimes they simply fade back into the churn. Standout track “Heaven” starts off with vocals over the white noise sound of falling rain, then pivots into moody, Björk-like electropop, and finishes in a tonal cloud of strings and harp.
Hval takes a similar approach to her lyrics, floating intriguing bits of concrete imagery in a matrix of stream-of-consciousness abstraction—Queens-bound subway cars and a scrap of John Lennon and Yoko Ono’s “Happy Xmas (War Is Over)” tumbling past enigmatic, impressionistic lines like “I separate from feelings/ Complex harmonic notion/ Harmonic notion.” As a lyricist, Hval sometimes feels like she has less in common with traditional songwriters than with text artists like Jenny Holzer and Tracey Emin. Like them, her deployment of words lands hardest when it hits a gnomically confrontational tone. And in terms of gnomic confrontation, it’s hard to beat the phrase “soft dick rock.”
Halfway through “Kingsize”, the album opener full of pungent abstract lines like “I beckon the cupcake, the huge capitalist clit,” Hval pauses the song to whisper the question, “What is SOFT DICK ROCK?” How you react during the silence she lets hang in the air for a beat after the question—whether you laugh out loud or frown perplexedly—will probably determine how you feel about the rest of the album.
The most obvious and immediately gratifying answer to Hval’s question is that soft dick rock is simply the spirit of fragile male ego and fear of women that rock music (among other pop styles) has sustained for the better part of a century. Baby boomer guitar gods hogging stages well into their senescence are soft dick rock; so are younger and more critically well-defended artists keeping the patriarchy alive and breathing in the counterculture.
But “soft dick rock” could also be music that runs counter to rock’s testosterone-driven nature. “That Battle Is Over” is Apocalypse, girl’s most straightforward pop moment, with a shuffling quasi-hip-hop beat, an unhurried organ progression, and Hval singing with an uncharacteristically bluesy inflection. The lyrics are about reckoning with the legacy of an older generation’s revolution, and the question of whether the advances they made are actually doing Hval any good. The relationship between the reference and the subject matter, potent and intriguingly ambiguous, emits a weird frisson that’s as fascinating in its own way as her voice. Like all of her best work, it finds new ways to provoke, and new parts of your brain to light up.