On “Why This?” the first track of side two (or song six on a playlist or a CD) of Jenny Hval’s album Apocalypse, Girl, Hval sings that she wants us all to cry together. So you can’t listen to the album at work on your headphones, unless you want to explain to your coworkers why you’re wandering around the building weeping like a child who has lost their first pet.
Jenny Hval’s previous album Innocence is Kinky had guitar blasts in songs that would settle into a steady-rockin time. Apocalypse, Girl doesn’t have an “I Called,” it’s more subdued, the noise and samples are still there but, they are smoothed out and blended together like a quilt. Innocence had electrified blood pumping, Apocalypse is an electric organ bleeding.
Engaging critical feminist performance art practices, the brilliance of this album is that Hval, working with producer Lasse Marhaug, was able to transform feminist theories of power and the body into emotionally affective pop songs. Deploying the human voice, found and generated sound, synthesizers and samples, Jenny Hval addresses the effects of capitalism, the status of feminism, US ideology and Protestant Christianity. Sounds fun.
Hval speaks a series of phrases casually on the first track “Kingsize” and by the third song “That Battle is Over,” it becomes clear that these seemingly random thoughts addressing care of the self and the act of cultural creation, are the themes of the album, taken up again and again until the album’s end. If you don’t want to be blubbering while you’re standing in line at the market, then listening to individual tracks might help you avoid that situation.
Songs like “Heaven” addressing the experience of turning 33, or “Sabbath” which has a girl imagining she’s a boy, probably won’t make you cry. But even if you have it on shuffle, it only takes one track, like “That Battle is Over” which addresses the supposed end of history and the failure of liberal social theory, inviting the listener to revel in the triumph of capitalist alienation, to make things socially awkward on the light rail. So, so much for that plan.
Listening to the album from start to finish, we hear how Hval was able to weave all of these potentially depressing topics into a whole, causing waves of sadness to envelope us, washing over us with a sticky despair at the state of the world, and by the end of the album we are devastated. The weird thing is I can’t stop listening to it. I just keep restarting it as soon as the strained breathing and the body-blow-like bass beats of the final song end, because this is an exhilarating kind of sadness, one that engages with the above themes in a way that liberates the listener with a will to live. And this is a credit to Jenny Hval.
If you really rocked out to Innocence is Kinky and you want to know if you can do that again with this album, the answer is, “Yes. It rocks. Soft Dick Style.”