Jenny Hval - The Practice of Love

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Jenny Hval, the Norwegian artist, is already accustomed to exploring themes of intimacy, sexuality, and nature. Those concepts have been her calling card. But on her seventh studio album, The Practice of Love, we see her exploring this subject matter at her most personal and tangible. With her affinity for horror films and the darker side of literature, Hval has found success artfully shocking listeners with her grisly and abstract arrangements. Here the edges are just barely streamlined for a more straightforward memoir approach. In that way, The Practice of Love, while not sacrificing any of its ambition or excitement, may be her most approachable record yet.

In terms of instrumentation, Hval trades in her typically preferred shades of symphonic avant-pop. Inspired by 90s trance, Hval viscerally incorporates dance floor ready electronic sounds as her backdrop. For a record containing such metaphysical concepts, music designed to elicit a body response perfectly fits. Over skittering drum machines and enveloping synths, Hval invites the listener into a sort of spiritual transcendence through a study of nature on the opener “Lion”.  “And the strange blue flowers that grow near them/Study this and ask yourself: ‘Where is God?’” Hval asks.

Three primary backing voices are heard throughout the album: Australian vocalist Laura Jean, French musician Félicia Atkinson, and the Singapore based singer Vivan Wang. While this is distinctly a Hval project, the focused vocal pairings throughout make this album feel much more like a collaborative effort. On the spellbinding “Accident,” featuring a hypnotic techno drumbeat, Hval and Jean explore the beauty of motherhood through a sobering tale of two childless women engaging in a Skype conversation. Hval brings an elevated specificity to her lyrics, transporting the listener straight into the settings of her weaving narratives. “Once I was an accident, and a mystery of life,” Hval points out.

“Ashes to Ashes” is one of the most purely beautiful things Hval has ever released. A crisp, dream like atmosphere gives way to Hval’s swelling voice while mesmerizing layers of synths marries a marching, propulsive programmed drum rhythm. Hval’s singing reaches multiple, cathartic highs. This hook-laden song offers ways to big moments for an artist that typically relies on grisly understatement. Lyrically, Hval embodies her songwriting process: “Even the groove was filled with sadness/ Every beat went all the way down/Into the two holes in the ground.”

The saxophone laced “Thumbsucker” is cerebral and complex. Hval and Atkinson ruminate on changing environments and life stages. Glitchy electronics subtly float around the background underneath the washed, reverb heavy synths. It’s the most reminiscent track of her more minimalist approaches to arrangements.

The Practice of Love in its exuberance is in its own way a subversive act. An artist who has been uncompromising in her challenging and abstract voice would often be met with skepticism when producing such a pop-inspired project. But Hval is diving into pop sensibilities and morphing them into her own delicate and elemental package, a package that is entirely liberated and uniquely her vision.

Grade: A