Norway’s Jenny Hval isn’t the easiest artist around which to wrap one’s head, let alone to capture in prose. The Oslo-based singer-songwriter is seemingly more pure artist than simply musician, although her medium is absolutely based in the rhythmic arts. Her higher artistic calling exists on a different plane than the average musician toiling their way through life, city to city, club to club. To wit: the rather complex directions given to the sound guy that, by themselves, explain her architected complexity.
And yet, she is not without reference points. As she commences her performance, she offers her audience one of the more familiar sounding riffs of the night, regaling us with sounds from “The Seer” that vaguely resemble elements of the build in the 1987 U2 track, “One Tree Hill” alongside interjections of the more esoteric, drug-driven organ parts of Ray Manzarek. Immediately, though, those assembled at Washington, D.C.’s DC9 know this is going to be a night of the avant garde. We’re greeted with bow on guitar and dissonant synths, then, ambient synths with dissonance from the always versatile Fender Jaguar. Which, combined, sounds like a description of a late 1980s Sonic Youth performance paying homage to a late 1960s Velvet Underground performance, even though the execution by the trio on stage bears little likeness. Perhaps this larger connection with the past is purposeful, though, greeting us with something somewhat less challenging before our voyage to places without popular precedent.
As they finish with their first track — the last track on Innocence is Kinky — she whispers prophetically, “The undressing has begun.” And so it has. An undressing of our preconceptions, of our connection to the outside world, and to the passing of time itself.
Her spoken words are met by mallet-ed toms and crashing cymbals, two situated in tandem with the top cymbal inverted. We’re in an average rock and roll club, but what we’re seeing is art gallery appropriate (she did just play the Andy Warhol Museum). The journey is akin to what one would experience in shared moments in the dark at I’ll Be Your Mirror, moments where the rest of the world has ceased to exist (as, now, has IBYM). There’s cinematic DNA in the moments that follow, the species being one of those arty flicks that played on all of 14 screens, screens where the largest draws have been Atom Egoyan films. A pony-tailed guy with a black turtleneck and a cape saunters by — artist, himself.
Her banter between songs is seemingly heavy on metaphor, deeper and less contextual than Bjork‘s swan or Lady Gaga‘s meat. Words, in these moments, seem a costume unto themselves. She’s unsteady in a purposeful way, throwing us off balance and chanting in a space where childlike dreams meet adulthood’s anxiety. Stark transitions occur precisely, Hval summoning up power incisively and rapidly, her voice rapier-like, then blunt, possessing a power and violence that command attention even as it flirts with a bird-like quality.
An Outside-era David Bowie vibe makes a brief appearance, steady rhythm and droning ambiance allowing her to paint her own design upon that muddied palette. And, it may be little more than their shared Scandinavian inflection, but her pitch, particularly at the end of the title track of her latest offering, summons up thoughts of Lykke Li. “In and out and in and out… ” Is that what she was saying? The song hangs there, its sentiment, real or perceived, perfuming the air. “Thank you,” she offers to her thankful audience. Respectful silence. She fills the space, “That always seems weird…I need to find songs to sing in between songs instead.” And there, perhaps, we are treated to the evening’s best example of her wonderfully dry humor.
Like EDM music, each of her songs appear to have (at least) one rhythmic component that listeners can latch onto even as songs meander about in a non-traditional manner. The vocals almost never fill that role, so, when they do, they gain poignancy and bring breathing to a halt. Eventually, the night itself must come to its own bracing halt, and that moment’s arrival is almost as jarring as was the seemingly brief journey outside of ourselves.
Photos | Jenny Hval: Katherine Gaines
Photos | Kirin J Callinan: Katherine Gaines