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‘And I grab my cunt with my hand, which isn’t clean’, Jenny Hval informs us after listing attributes of desirability for the 21st century woman: getting paid, getting laid, getting pregnant, not making a fool of yourself and shaving in all of the right places are a few of them. At least half of Apocalypse, girl is a spoken word commentary on gender, religion and America and it is, with some irony and humour, a deeply seductive and pleasurable experience. Where 2013’s Innocence Is Kinky was more an exploration of standalone personal and fictional narratives set to punk vocals and rock guitars, Apocolypse, girl is predominately electronic, occasionally dream pop and archly confessional and condemning.
Jenny Hval is a Norwegian performance art-pop artist and from a list of contemporaries consisting of Holly Herndon, Laurel Halo, Glasser and Julia Holter, Hval falls to the more accessible and vocally melodic side of things. Hval wants to be understood or at least heard, quite literally. Her narratives are open to interpretation and speculation in respect to the lyrical content of course, but there is no doubt in what she is actually saying. Her speaking voice here is cut glass but plush and upfront. At times, she sounds disconcertingly similar to actress and part singer Charlotte Gainsbourg. This soft precision only adds to the shock of hearing Hval suddenly say a sentence like ‘I beckon the cupcake, the huge capitalist clit.’ It’s unexpected and powerful.
The Grande Dame of art-pop of course is Laurie Anderson and not Lady Gaga, although she still could become an interesting contributor. In the early eighties, Anderson actually managed to become a bona fide pop star for a month or two with the most avant-garde, 8 minute plus electronic track to top the charts ever with ‘O Superman’. Her debut album Big Science is name checked here on the manifesto-like opening tack ‘Kingsize’, and it is appropriate as Hval brings to mind Anderson’s style of spoken, trance-like vocal style surrounded by billowing and discordant synthesisers. In 1981, Anderson asked ‘What is behind that curtain?,’ and in 2015, Hval wants to know ‘What is soft dick rock?’ Answers on a postcard please.
The majority of Hval’s third album is not explicitly concerned with sex organs and cupcakes, although cunts, the use of the word at least, are a reoccurring theme. ‘Heaven’ evokes Saint Etienne with its bright pop structures and finds Hval repeating ‘I’m 33 now, that’s Jesus’ age.’ Over a trip-hop beat, ‘Sabbath’ begins by commenting on the male gaze from the perspective of a female who had swapped places with a man, transitioning but still not fully committed. ‘That Battle is Over’ advises self-soothing as an alternative to the man and a child needed to ultimately fulfil a woman and that breast cancer is more likely to strike than accomplishing this goal. If this sounds overly serious or academic then be assured that the real skill of Apocolypse, girl is how dynamic and fun a lot of it is. Jenny Hval has purposely made a beautiful album about some very ugly things and she fully understands, explores and exploits the strength of the human voice, her voice.