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Jenny Hval, ‘Innocence Is Kinky’ – Album Review

Rune Grammofon

The first words on ‘Innocence Is Kinky’ are “That night / I watched people f—ing on my computer / Nobody can see me looking anyway.” The Norwegian singer-songwriter Jenny Hval’s second full-length under her own name is full of sexual and bodily imagery. It’s paired with a kind of lacerated, bruised mixture of noise, ambient music, punk rock and folk, along with a fractured, inverted songwriting sensibility that’s just as eager to violently push and pull at the listener’s expectations as it is to offer warm and vulnerable emotion, often stark and overwhelming. Given Hval’s blunt line readings and the ever-changing song structures, it’s easy to let the music bounce off you as it comes. At the same time, it’s hard not to wonder what Hval is actually up to.

Hval is a poet, novelist and critic on top of being a musician, and when you look into any of her work you find there’s an equal interest in high and low culture and where they intersect on a more human, internal level. ‘Innocence Is Kinky’ was inspired largely by “trash” culture, and in a recent interview, Hval describes being fascinated by reality TV shows like the Norwegian version of ‘Teen Mom’ and its “staging of personality,” thus reducing a full human being to fit certain stereotypical and archetypical characterizations for the show’s benefit.

The whole record seems to derive from a similar interest. Hval approaches her music with overtly artistic intentions, and on ‘Innocence Is Kinky,’ she tries to understand and explore those opposing perspectives. The opening lines are provocative, but their sexual nature seem to be only a minor part of the point. The absurdity and disassociation of the scene is more in focus. The lines feel like a framing device for the whole record, getting at the relationships between the perceiver and the perceived, subjects and objects and how we internally stage who or what we’re seeing in order to shape our perception. Hval is ultimately interested in whether those human barriers can be transcended. In short, it’s an album that tries to sort out the relationship between visual and internal worlds. It might sound like heady stuff, but Hval works primarily on a visceral and emotional level, weaving the music around a kind of body-centric language.

For Hval, the body functions as a means of expression and exploration, sexuality being a part of that. It’s perception that favors touch and emotion over any of the other senses in a search for more innate and intimate human understanding. Hval’s voice is a big part of that. A lot of the album features poetic spoken-word passages that set the scene with vivid abstractions, but Hval’s singing voice feels like a true extension of the same tactile perspective. It’s raw and powerful, sometimes soft and cooing, and she uses melody and dissonance seamlessly to guide the listener while the music follows suit.

‘Is There Anything On Me That Doesn’t Speak?’ seems to correspond directly to the above ethos. The title itself says pretty much everything on its own, but the song’s execution is marvelous. After a poetic reading that mentions Joan of Arc and features the choice line “catching bits of nature in my mouth,” the track opens with a flurry of anxious guitar strumming before turning into a piano-centric, mid-tempo rocker, trekking through minute visual details as emotions build. Everything screeches to a halt with the line “I ran my hands over my body to hush them.” The song feels perfectly realized in that moment, and the syncopated delivery of the titular line into the sudden stillness carries such a profound weight, as if every nerve is alive.

On ‘Amphibious, Androgynous,’ Hval focuses on the 98 percent of the human body made up of water and describes a dream of a lover made out of twigs: “I snap his legs / I snap his lips / When we kiss.” It’s a beautiful and loaded song. Is Hval pointing out the gentle, brittle distinctions between gender? Between all humans? Or just the body’s parallels with nature? The track ends with a serene elongated organ melody and the words “It’s a clear spring day / And I’m filled with sky / 98 percent blue.”

Maybe all this sounds kind of high-minded and abstract, but it’s grounded in Hval’s individual experience. She filters in memories and experiences of time spent in Australia, as well as in her hometown of Oslo. The abstraction and metaphor feel exceedingly personal and culled from a life lived. It’s striking to see such a humanized sexual sensibility, especially in an age where “sexuality” seems to be solely defined by media dehumanization, as Hval seems all too aware of. But what Hval aims for with ‘Innocence Is Kinky’ is something all art should strive to do: transcend individual experience.

The album closes with perhaps its most gorgeous, direct and liberating moment on a song called ‘The Seer.’ Over some overlapping, psychedelic organs that fit with the title’s mystic themes, Hval’s voice stretches wide. She opens with a couple lines that seem to sum up the whole record: “What is human? / Is there really nothing more than seeing or seen?” With lines like “Listen to the lips that feed you” and “This body is not for visions,’ the track becomes one of the record’s truly overt statements. It’s a tearful moment of release and culmination, and Hval’s conclusionary chant of “My body is the end” feels almost cosmic by the time the track finishes.

9 out of 10 diffuser.fm rating

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