Album Review: Jenny Hval, ‘Apocalypse, Girl’
"Think big, girl -- like a king," Norwegian singer-songwriter Jenny Hval says in the spoken intro that begins her sophomore album. Hval may be quoting Danish poet Mette Moestrup, but the shades of audacity, tortured desire and vague menace in her voice belong exclusively to her. Loosely speaking, Hval makes experimental, lightly electronic pop music but, as Apocalypse, girl makes unequivocally clear, Hval is an artist almost possessed by her own vision.
Though one could go through and describe the makeup, texture and mood of the various songs, suffice it to say that when you press play here you're in for a musical experience that isn't easily understood in terms of anything you've heard before. Hval can sing with sweet, breathy ease, but she mostly opts to choke her pitches for intentional spikes of provocation in her delivery. In doing so, she matches the jarring effect of lines like "And I grab my c--- / With my hand that isn't clean."
No mere provocateur, though, Hval follows-up by fleshing out the context of such confessions, making clear that her ultimate goal lies far beyond low-brow titillation or even arousal in the first place. "Am I loving myself now?" she asks, before wondering whether her lover is engaged in similarly disaffected "self-love" on his own. Musically speaking, at times Hval can appear to be veering somewhat close to songwriting convention -- such as on the quasi-soulful, organ-driven "That Battle Is Over" -- but nothing on Apocalypse, girl occurs without some form of warpage.
Moreover, the album is filled with examples of non-rhythmic and -- for lack of a better word -- ambient passages that sound like tuneful, low-stress exorcisms and yet maintain, if not one foot, then at least a toe or two within the boundaries of what we might consider "songs." Sometimes, Hval touches ever-so-slightly on psychedelia. Otherwise, she remains totally uncompromising on her mission to uncover beauty in the ugly.
There are some artists who arrive fully formed as paradigm-destroyers, people -- St. Vincent, Kate Bush, Suzanne Vega, Tom Waits -- who somehow establish a presence for themselves within the realm of pop but present a sound so utterly distinctive that they singlehandedly shatter the notions we hold about music in general. Art needs people like this to come along and periodically sweep the slate clean.
With Apocalypse, girl, Hval certainly -- and assertively -- throws in her bid to be counted as one of them.