A Private Apocalypse; Jenny Hval's New Album Is Utterly Mystifying
On ‘Apocalypse, Girl’, Jenny Hval explores herself in cutting, surreal poetry and beautiful, mysterious avant-pop music. The record is a fathomless dive into herself; a leap away from the allegory of her last record ‘Innocence is Kinky’, ‘Apocalypse, Girl’ presents a cross-section of Hval’s life with an access-all-areas approach that is both impish and vulnerable, exposing and unravelling her body, mind and desire with wit and transcendent emotion. Yet as high-minded as that may sound, her lyrics are never impenetrable, carefully treading the line between profundity and obscurity, and the surreal beauty of the instrumentals moves naturally, bypassing the brain and heading straight for the gut and feet.
There is a distinct sense of form to the record, with the narrative divided into four sections that, when combined with evocative and visual imagery, can only be described as cinematic: acts rather than movements.
The first act addresses western values and the experience of adult femininity, posing a central question: “what is it to take care of yourself? Getting paid, getting laid, getting pregnant?” The songs slowly develop into a cohesive whole, starting with the unsettling, whispered noise poetry of “Kingsize,” progressing to the questioning, shifting soundscapes of “Take Care of Yourself” and finally to the biting irony and lush, Portishead-esque sounds of “That Battle is Over.”
Next are tracks four to six, which, beginning with the eerie limbo evoked in “White Underground,” shift territory to the religious. Hval expresses her desire, found at school when observing religious classmates in chapel, to “sing religiously, you know: airy more than necessary” over the stunning choral-house pulsing of “Heaven,” and “Why This?” sees these choirs become absorbed by the electronic, their harmonies given an artificial tinge and transformed into an instrument.
“Some Days” marks the transition into the third act with one of the most surreal images of the album: "Some days I feel my body is a cushion held up by thin wires, and I can see myself from above, holding wires in my hands." This line, and some dissonant strings, are all the 43 second track holds, but it marks a shift back to the body from the spirit, and to an even younger Hval: in “Sabbath” she is “six or seven, and dreaming that [she is] a boy.”
Through a nebula of childhood dreams and memories, Hval explores a child’s conception of identity and confusion with the strictness of gender, seeing a boy in a shower and being consumed by both desire and an urge to “tell him that [they’d] switched places.” When later playing a game with a friend, the young Jenny muses: “if the dog was a wolf and I a boy then she could be a horse then, she'd no excuse." The blunt but brilliant logic of a child is captured amazingly here, and the woozy, thick instrumental throughout makes this a phenomenal standout of a track.
“Angels and Anaemia” progresses the dreamlike, bodily narrative of this section, with bodies whispering and dissolving in a harp-strewn hum.
The final act of the record is only one song, “Holy Land,” which is mostly comprised of a subdued ambient drone of cello, percussion and synth, the lovers of “Angels and Anaemia” now completely dissolved into air. Hval’s voice eventually rises from the drone, singing of born-again Christians in America, using their premise to fuse the topics of the record: the body, the feminine and the spiritual. "I understand if people want to be reborn. I understand that it's the same as feeling unborn. I understand that we all want to feel unborn." The song closes with arrhythmic thumping and Hval panting, her existence reduced to nothingness at its origin.
‘Apocalypse, Girl’ is Hval’s life set in reverse, a journey from adulthood to adolescence to childhood and finally to the moment of birth itself – and nothingness. It is flawlessly flawed, capturing through evocative improvisation, phenomenal lyricism and the structure of film the essence of a human life.
Words by Sam Birkett
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