Jenny Hval – Apocalypse, girl (Sacred Bones)
By Scott Creney
I know that none of this matters b/c the album came out nearly a week ago and so everyone’s already on to reading about another record by now. If I’d finished this earlier, I could have multiplied the number of Original Page Views by 10, and in music writing world this would’ve made me 10 times the success I will be today. So I guess the timing of this review makes me 10 times the failure.
Because measuring quality is difficult but measuring quantity is so simple. And we like things that are simple, and we don’t like things that are difficult.
But the thing is, there’s so much happening on this album, so much space to explore, such an abundance of ideas, that I’m still not sure I wouldn’t be better off waiting another week. Because I want to do justice to its greatness, and doing justice to things is hard.
There’s a lot to talk about so let’s get this out of the way first. We may not hear a better album all year—more powerful, more beautiful, so firmly rooted in the idea of what it means to be alive right now in this very moment hurtling into the future—than Jenny Hval’s Apocalypse, girl. It oozes intelligence. It meditates on aging & identity & the body & the sad distance between us that is everyday life, the way we’re all outwardly connected while internally falling apart.
There was a lot to like on Hval’s last album, Innocence is Kinky, but the lack of memorable melodies left me on the outside looking in (I feel the same way about a lot of Bjork’s music, so take that opinion w/massive flaking mountains of salt). But I’ll be going through her back catalog after this b/c it’s obvious that Jenny Hval is smarter than I am, and a weakness in her back catalogue might actually be a weakness in me.
Because sometimes I’m a bad listener.
For the most part, Apocalypse, girl shuns conventional notions of melody and hooks, but turns its absence of earworms into a strength by fucking so completely w/her sound. It pretty much does away w/any chords/beats/structure for a more sparse, less constructed, deeper sound. Most of the music is provided by noise drones, slow & wavy, ambient & ethereal, and the space in the arrangements leaves more room for her voice. Which is such a great move. Because what a voice it is. And what words. And what thoughts. And what singing. This album is a fucking masterclass in singing, the different ways a human voice can affect a listener.
The way she sings “self-doubt” on ‘Angels and Anaemia’ will make you want to rewind (or drag, or click, or move the needle back) to hear her say it again and again. Two words alone worth the price of admission. And we should take a moment here to acknowledge how difficult it is to sing into a microphone, to record a line like “self-doubt” without popping that ‘d’ or sybillanting that ‘s’.
And Sometimes all she has to do is speak. Album opener ‘Kingsize’ could double as an ASMR track w/its sense imagery and hyper-articulation. The way she enunciates her f’s:
Four flaking, flaccid fingers. No future. Oh, the fruit flies
That phrase “no future” comes up a lot on this album. But where the Sex Pistols screamed it as a threat. Hval thinks about it as she sings and wonders what it means, what it feels like, to have no future. This is an album that can’t stop thinking.
It’s also extremely sensual. And though we interchange the two words all the time like they mean the same thing, there’s an important difference between sensual and sexual. I’m talking about ‘gratification of the senses’. Not to say the album isn’t sexual. At times, it’s very sexual, almost uncomfortably so. But where most artists sexualize their music by trying to enact the act, or re-enact the act, Hval’s more interested in talking about it and thinking about it. What does it mean?
And if this sounds too intellectual/conceptual, go and listen to the last minute of ‘Heaven’ when Hval plants her feet and belts out a vocal that soars—Jenny Hval in the sky and all of us looking up at her, a multi-colored firework that just went boom and why are all of us in tears.
There are some very Right Now questions all throughout the album, some merely implied, and others asked outright: If you’re free now to create any identity for yourself that you want, then do you have any identity at all? Did you ever? And if you can’t believe in yourself then how can you believe in other people? Can faith even exist at all?
So many questions, but they’re the right questions. ‘Take Care of Yourself’ opens with a litany of them:
What is it to take care of yourself? Getting paid? Getting laid? Getting married? Getting pregnant? Fighting for visibility in your market? Realizing your potential? Being healthy, being clean, not making a fool of yourself, not hurting yourself? Shaving in all the right places?
And so the narrator spends most of the album watching & observing, looking to other people for clues. Maybe they can help her understand. In the song ‘Heaven’, it occurs to her that people who go to church have faith, and so she takes the train to one and stands in the back. But she’s unable to participate.
The front row clasp their hands now, they’re singing with devotion. I separate from feelings, complex harmonic notion, harmonic notion. What’s wrong with their voices, I sing like this when I’m home. I shut mouth and ran away, spat out that neoliberal, girly heart that held no blood and made no beat, just vibrated sweetly in the chest.
The choir she’s watching is able to sing in a way that she can only sing in private, without anyone else watching. Where an audience brings out the best in the choir, for the narrator it brings only paralysis, a crippling self-consciousness. Even in a spiritual place, surrounded by people expressing their joy and their faith, the narrator can’t help but intellectualize it. She processes it. She isn’t feeling, she’s noticing.
It’s a pivotal moment in the album. We thought the 21st century would set us free, would liberate us, but w/the freedom to invent one’s self comes a hyper self-consciousness. The question ‘Who do I want to be?’ leads inevitably to ‘How do I want to be seen?’ which leads just as inevitably to ‘What do people see when they see me?’ The people in that church aren’t thinking about being, they’re simply being. And they are the ones who are truly free. Hval sees the lie at the heart of modernity, a promise of freedom that ends in isolation.
The longing for a god you’re incapable of believing in, an absence of spirit felt as an absence of self.
We have, in this last hundred years, created a society through technology & art that enables individuals to imagine themselves as anything they want, regardless of whatever harsh realities they might be living through. The promise of freedom has turned out to be an illusion of freedom. Or to put it another way, remember that time you decided not to post something b/c someone in your feed might not like it?
At times the album reminds me of Laurie Anderson at her best, only it’s better than that. And I don’t feel guilty making the comparison since JH says the words ‘big science’ right there in the second verse of the first song on the album.
Even before we’re born we are already reacting to the voices around us, our mother and our father and the strange interlopers in their lives.
Apocalypse, girl is about the certainty that you’re no longer in control. the body as an agent of chaos & indeterminacy, set upon by outside forces. The story’s told in a peaceful way, but you get the idea that somewhere inside the person is screaming. As it’s written, you might believe Hval when she sings that she’s put her head in the oven because she’s looking for her muffins. As it’s sung, you’re convinced she’s only one slight push away from channeling Sylvia Plath & her settling of accounts.
That cover photo seems to be going right by people. That’s a fitness ball, used almost exclusively by women during workouts and birth. to shape & conform their bodies, to make themselves more comfortable as they suffer for beauty, for health, for life. To me, that picture on the cover looks like a woman in labor, albeit a bit overdressed. That particular position is esp. helpful if the mother is experiencing back labor. That’s when the baby’s position is inverted, facing out instead of in, so it puts more pressure on the tailbone which causes pain so severe that it masks the actual labor pains (which are plenty painful enough, I’ll tell you). And there’s something about that picture—woman as a construct of society’s demands, the painfulness of the body, the ways in which we are connected but still apart (even w/an umbilical cord that binds us you still exist as an other).
Songs interlink, they run into each other lyrically, completing each other’s thoughts. So the “soft dick rock” line in the first song is echoed in the next by “holding your soft dick” (stated matter-of-factly, as something that someone simply does). The song ‘Take Care of Yourself’ ends and the first line of the next song wonders “What is it to take care of yourself.” That song ends “we cling on to heaven,” and the next song is called ‘Heaven.’ And so on and so forth, until the last song comes and we’re back where we started in America. This is an album in every sense of the word; the songs lose some of their power when you remove them from their context.
Here’s the lyrics of the 10-minute ‘Holy Land’ (a title used in a way that resonates on so many levels you could spend the rest of the day considering it) in full:
When I went to America I found myself to be not myself. I could not align with the landscape that reminded me, my body, of being newborn. I understand why people want to be reborn, I understand why people speak in tongues. I understand why people want to feel newborn, I understand that it’s the same as feeling unborn, I understand that we all want to feel unborn. I understand it in America.
People who speak in tongues are free from self-consciousness; they’ve gone beyond language into direct communication, moved by the holy spirit. People who are newborn, i.e. born again, are inventing themselves for the first time, free from their history, a blank slate. Their self as they have known it has now ceased to exist. Apocalypse, girl flirts very dangerously w/the seductiveness of death, as a means of transcendence and a means of escape. It’s unsettling & troubling & beautiful & true.
I could go on about this record for days. I may write another review in a month because everything in the way we write about music, the way we talk about music, moves so fast and is so reactive, this accelerated pace of consumption, that we don’t get enough time to properly champion a great record. It’s been less than six months since Black Messiah appeared but nobody talks about it anymore, and it’s not like the things we’re discussing instead are important. It’s just that the need for content, the constant stream of chatter & noise driving every conversation, the value of the new over the good, is what drives the conversations around music. Who can have the freshest take, the hottest take, the take we haven’t heard before? What’s that you tweeted? Oh that’s what we were talking about last week. Old news.
Newer is always better, and if you don’t agree it’s b/c you’re not moving fast enough and need to go faster.
But Jenny Hval already understands all of this. Her album is awash in it. It’s sifting through the culture like a skilled anthropologist.
We are surrounded by loneliness, but this album makes you less lonely. We are imploding into each other, but this album makes you feel like an individual, empowered and strong.
It’s a fantastically evocative piece of music lifted by a fantastically evocative voice that sings fantastically evocative words. Almost every line could be the opening of a great novel. You don’t have anything better to do with the rest of your year. Go write one of them. Get to work. Does she have to do everything herself.
Apocalypse, girl is an album so good it makes me glad I’ve stayed alive long enough to hear it.
Using the new Collapse Board rating system, I give it a 1.
Note: As I was wrapping up this review, I saw a news story that Jenny Hval went on genius.com and annotated some of her lyrics. Not wanting to rewrite anything I may have gotten wrong, and also not buying into the idea that an author’s interpretation of their work is necessarily more valid than the reader’s, I’m going to wait to read them until I’m finished writing this (which is hard, b/c I’m super curious), but I’d be shocked if they weren’t worth your time.