Magazine article The New Yorker

Soft Apocalypse

Magazine article The New Yorker

Soft Apocalypse

Article excerpt


Jenny Hval wanders through the fallout of the twenty-first century.

"What is soft dick rock?" Jenny Hval asks, on "Kingsize," the opening track of her new album, "Apocalypse, girl." She speaks the phrase, and lingers over the consonants. The effect is both comic and startling--a vivid, abrupt deflation of the machismo that has characterized so much of popular music: the hip swivels, the bare-chested strutting, the guitars that function as penis extensions or substitutes. Hval's question arrives during a brief pause in an otherwise fidgety arrangement, which includes snippets of synthesizer, the sound of a bow being scraped across cello strings, and a series of rattling noises, as if someone were rifling through a cutlery drawer. The effect is to make the question feel balder, and bolder.

The overlap of intimacy and unease is important to Hval; her albums often begin there. "I arrived in town with an electric toothbrush pressed against my clitoris," she announced, on the first track of her 2011 record, "Viscera." Her next release, "Innocence Is Kinky," from 2013, took off with a whispered confession: "That night, I watched people fucking on my computer." Hval's aim seems not to offend but to estrange, creating distance between herself and the listener; her narrators are unreliable but fascinating. Once she has opened up that distance, she roams the breadth of it. The spoken monologue of "Kingsize" unfolds somewhere between the terrestrial world and a dream, and, as in dreams, sexual symbols fuse with the bizarre. "I sing to the bananas," Hval continues. "The skin is getting thin and brown."

Hval is a thirty-four-year-old Norwegian musician and writer, and "Apocalypse, girl" is her third album under her own name; she has also released two albums as Rockettothesky, and recorded in various partnerships. Gender is a central theme in her music: "Innocence Is Kinky" grew out of her work on a sound installation, a response to images of women's faces that were taken from sources including Paris Hilton's sex tape and Carl Dreyer's silent film "The Passion of Joan of Arc." "The camera is a mirror / But mine, not yours," Hval sings, on "Renee Falconetti of Orleans." "Innocence Is Kinky" feels brittle, moving from outbursts of electric guitar to spoken word to eerie, pretty melodies that recall the occult chill of PJ Harvey's album "White Chalk" (2007). (Hval's record was produced by John Parish, Harvey's longtime collaborator.) Like Harvey, Hval pursues two of the big themes, power and desire, but where Harvey, especially on her early albums, seemed to parody or role-play masculine bravado, Hval's music is far less aggressive than her lyrics might suggest. As an answer to the question "What is soft dick rock?," "Apocalypse, girl" presents a kind of experimental folk music, which resists the rhythmic and melodic efficiencies--or, one might say, the conquests--of chart pop in favor of something slower and more irregular, with few hooks or choruses.

On "Apocalypse, girl," Hval creates a kind of experimental folk music, which resists the rhythmic and melodic efficiencies of chart pop in favor of something stranger.

Hval has toured recently with Mike Hadreas (who performs as Perfume Genius), another artist who isn't shy about challenging gender conventions. In his songs, Hadreas details the dangers that may confront gay men who express their sexuality openly; sometimes he turns the tables, adopting with pride the flamboyant queerness that bigots find threatening. Hval, too, is interested in danger. …

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