- The Norwegian's piercing intelligence combines with inviting synth-led production on this exceptional album.
- Imagine if you could regard love at a safe distance, encounter it as an intellectual inquiry rather than hazardous terrain. Think about it, not be in it. On her recent records, including 2016's career-defining Blood Bitch, Norwegian songwriter Jenny Hval has led us down many strange, sideways streams of thought, singing in her heady voice about things like menstrual blood, contraception and capitalism. But on her seventh album, she finally applies her cool intellect to the big one, the subject that has probably inspired most of the pop music ever made.
Through its title, The Practice Of Love is a reference to an "anti-romance" thriller by Austrian director Valie Export. But it also seems to echo bell hooks' provocative definition of love, which the feminist writer framed as a verb, above all—something that you do, rather than feel. And so there is no love object at the centre of The Practice Of Love, no romance or heartbreak at the root of Hval's current preoccupation. Instead, love is seen for what it might provoke or produce, as a moving force that shapes the world while Hval looks on, like an anthropologist in the bushes.
On the title track we eavesdrop on a conversation she's having with the Australian musician Laura Jean Englert, who ponders what it means to remain childless. Over weightless, new agey electronics, Englert wonders if a childless woman can only ever be a secondary character in our species' grand narrative: "Maybe the main characters are the people who have kids, because they literally keep the virus going." Because if we're really getting practical about love, the conventional result should involve a baby, they agree. Without one, what was the purpose of your love?
Their conversation overlaps with a soliloquy by multi-instrumentalist Vivian Wang, an adaptation of an essay that Hval has previously shown on stage. Speaking through Wang, Hval explains that the Norwegian word for love (kjærlighet) contains the entire word for honesty (ærlighet), a feature that irks her. "It makes it sound religious, Protestant," she complains. "Maybe 'sorry' is the closest I ever got to expressing love." Resistant to touchy-feely explanations, Hval takes the self-help idea of a "love language" and hacks it down to sheer etymology, like a puzzle that might be cracked with a biro and notepad.
Hval's relentless intellectualism is subtly supported by the album's woozy, synth-led production. Her most heavily electronic full-length yet is rooted in the '80s and '90s, with echoes of Tangerine Dream in hypnotic-pop mode and Kate Bush hunched over her Fairlight. On "Six Red Cannas" there's even a squiggly IDM flourish that's pure Ray Of Light. Glassy surfaces accelerate into chugging motorik shapes and soft Balearic grooves, over which Hval's poem-essays freely unfold.
There's a note of trip-hop too, as cold space-disco synths pulse through baggy breakbeats on "Lion" and "High Alice." On "Accident," a synth arpeggio billows around her as she considers her own conception ("Once I was an accident and a mystery of life"); meanwhile, her eyes are open to the small details which might shed light on her condition, like the "stretch-mark cream in the Airbnb bathroom," which made her think, but "feel nothing."
In the centre of the album, the pairing of "Ashes To Ashes" and "Thumbsucker" calls back to Hval's previous themes as she blurs the line between eroticism and body horror over pounding, puff-chested rhythms and noodling saxophone: "Put two fingers in the earth, into rotting plums," on the first, then, "I got afraid that I'd dug too deep, stirred up something in the body."
After a lengthy grapple with the personal and physical aspects of love, the album's roundabout line of questioning resolves itself in an unexpected way on "Six Red Cannas." "I didn't think about it at the time / But in the desert / I think I was trying to write to Georgia O'Keeffe," she reasons, "like Joni Mitchell writes to Amelia Earhart / When she is driving, driving, driving in the desert."
Through these three women artists—all famed for their independence and a bloody-minded, offbeat type of feminism—Hval finds reassurance in the permanence of her creations, and the knowledge that her art will outlive her and beget its own children, as Amelia inspired Joni, and Georgia inspired Jenny. As she reels off crucial years in their collective creative history ("1927… 1929... 1946… 1976…"), phasing synths rush forward, pulling a century of thought together like an unstoppable tumbleweed.
After so many records, a debut novel and another book on the way, it's a privilege to be invited into Hval's private mental space. Like picking up a conversation with a much wiser friend, each new album compacts her advancing thought into a kind of guidebook for those who aren't quite so mentally together, all her latest learnings folded in. There's something especially knowing about the record's final, repeated hook, about "giving in" to "the ordinary." Obviously, Hval is anything but ordinary. "She is made for other things," as she acknowledges on "Accident," "born for cubist yearnings, born to write, born to burn."
01. Lions feat. Vivian Wang
02. High Alice
03. Accident feat. Laura Jean
04. The Practice Of Love feat. Laura Jean and Vivian Wang
05. Ashes To Ashes
06. Thumbsucker feat. Félicia Atkinson
07. Six Red Cannas feat. Vivian Wang, Félicia Atkinson and Laura Jean
08. Ordinary feat. Vivian Wang and Félicia Atkinson