“Soft-dick rock”, “capitalist clits” and “shaving in all the right places”: Jenny Hval is back, and feminism is top of her agenda. These patriarchy-pulverising lyrics are not new, however. In her explicitly feminist debut album, To Sing You Apple Trees, Hval deftly rhymes “masturbate”, “ejaculate” and “menstruate”, and in a recent interview, the Norwegian stated that feminism is in her “inner limbs, [her] inner secret genitals”.
In this sense, Hval’s music is progressive; she defies straightforward songwriting in favour of theoretical lyricism. Naturally, the combination works; alongside her musical ventures, Hval is a published academic and novelist. Her scope is exhibited in new release, Apocalypse, Girl. Not to be digested in one listen, this album bears a slow-burning soundscape and sinewy ideas. The most notable of these concepts is female sexuality. Apocalypse, Girl searches for the final destruction of carnal repression, finding inspiration in FKA Twigs and Bjork along the way.
A one-woman poetry slam, ‘Kingsize’ also incorporates themes of forced domesticity, repressed female sexuality and motherhood
“Think big, girl, like a king, think kingsize”: the album’s opening track ‘Kingsize’ is chiefly spoken word, beginning with a quote from Danish poet Mette Moestrup. Hval throws the listener into her conceptual abyss with nothing but sparse organ chords and the sound of creaking wood. A captivating start to the album, the track establishes Apocalypse, Girl‘s thematic tenets. The complex anxieties of social isolation are addressed by audiobook-friendly speech: “In New York I don’t dream… I see no future,” Hval breathes. A one-woman poetry slam, ‘Kingsize’ also incorporates themes of forced domesticity, repressed female sexuality and motherhood.
After this fragmented start, celestial synths ease the listener into a more conventional composition. In true Hval style, ‘Take Care of Yourself’ soon reverses any such progress. An anti-establishment monster rears its several, ugly heads in this second track. As implied by its semi-ironic title, the song is not only a solidarity plea, but also a jibe at the patriarchy. “Am I loving myself now? Am I taking care of myself now?” Hval taunts after graphically describing masturbation. An album highlight, ‘Take Care of Yourself’ is an affront to society’s contradicting gender roles.
Hval’s deep thinking dominates the opening tracks. It isn’t long, however, before Hval’s dream production team sway the album towards textural complexity. Apocalypse, Girl features an impressive roster of collaborators. Fellow Norwegian musician Lasse Marhaug was asked to join Hval after an evidently inspiring fanzine interview. The noise legend was also joined in the studio by Øystein Moen (Jaga Jazzist/Puma), Thor Harris (Swans), cellist Okkyung Lee and harpist Rhodri Davis.
The team triumphs in ‘Heaven’ and ‘White Underground’. Throughout both, Hval continues to speak her truths. This time, however, her vocals are a dense, hallucinating soundscape. ‘White Underground’ is haunted by space-age vs. Gregorian female harmonies. Hval’s soaring vocals also drown out infrequent male ones. Fitting, no?
‘White Underground’ exists somewhere between sleep and consciousness; a place between fiction and the realities of everyday feminism. In a welcome reinstatement of such realism, Hval offers ‘That Battle is Over’. A brilliant retort to the “women are so much better off now!” squad, the track depicts widespread female experiences:
Statistics and newspapers tell me I am unhappy and dying
That I need man and child to fulfill me
That I’m more likely to get breast cancer
And it’s biology
It’s my own fault
Hval’s surly vocals are heightened by a chilled-out, trip hop beat, which bears the unmistakable hallmarks of Øystein Moen.
She’s a potty-mouthed Kate Bush, a concise Judith Butler, and a beat-driven Joanna Newsom
By seeking out male producers such as Moen, Hval doesn’t limit herself to a female perspective, however. In her far-reaching examination of gender inequality, she also examines her male counterparts. ‘The Battle Is Over’ ironically references John Lennon and Yoko Ono’s ‘Happy Xmas (War is Over)’. Building upon the “soft dick rock” of ‘Kingsize’, Hval queries the social power of the supposedly domineering male musician.
Feminist thinking such as this pervades the record. Despite its recurrence, Apocalypse, Girl is not solely a feminist album. With debate about socialism and scientific agendas, Hval’s theories span all genders. That’s not to say that Apocalypse, Girl is not a concept album. Inequality and autonomy are explored through all components of the album. Thus, it’s a shame that despite this bond, Apocalypse, Girl drifts in some of its experiments. Towards its close, Hval reaches a plateau. The 10 minute finale, ‘Holy Land’, seems to float aimlessly, while its predecessor provides little transgression.
Fortunately, Apocalypse, Girl mostly charms with variation and volatility. Unprecedented 1980s house beats clash with delicate harp arrangements and wayward moans meet note-perfect melodies. Hval is startling and dissonant, but in being so finds a brilliant niche. She’s a potty-mouthed Kate Bush, a concise Judith Butler and a beat-driven Joanna Newsom. Apocalypse, Girl is definitely worth a listen. Make that several listens, in fact, provided you don’t object to the triumphant, repeated use of the word ‘cunt’.
The image shows Jenny Hval dressed in a long-sleeved white, shimmery dress, arms stretched high above her head. She wears a long, pink curly wig and stands in front of a wood-panelled wall, with shadow behind her and darkness to the left of her, broken by a single white light. Image used with kind permission from Stereo Sanctity.
Apocalypse, Girl is out now on Sacred Bones records.