Album Review: Hana Vu – Romanticism

[Ghostly; 2024]

Artemisia Gentileschi’s 17th century painting “Judith slaying Holofernes” is a powerful, scary work. A first version was painted when the artist was only 20, a show of her immense skill in depicting posture, environmental detail and violent emotional expression – but the second version is arguably the more sophisticated depiction when compared. With its impactful use of blacks, Judith’s glowing skin and determined expression is in stark contrast to the shock in Holofernes’ shadowed expression, as red blood sprouts like feathers from his opening neck. It presents a less theatric version than Caravaggio’s famous rendition, which renders the maid – like some sort of personified grim reaper – as an old woman, includes subtle eroticism in the depiction of both subjects (Holofernes’ chest is revealed, while the outline of Judith’s breasts is clearly visible under fabric) and frames the setting with a bright red drape. In contrast, Gentileschi chooses to center Judith and her maid Abra, who is a young woman here, emphasising their determined expressions and physical strength. In their posture and demeanour, they might as well be doing laundry, the slaying just another form of ‘women’s work’. If you want to use modern language, it could be said that it feels less cinematic and much more realistic than any other famous baroque versions. 

There are different interpretations of the painting, but with the detail of Judith’s bracelet depicting the god Artemis, it is largely seen as a study of the painter’s identification with the biblical heroine (as reflected through her biography). This somewhat collides with the general usage of Judith and her story as a propaganda tool of the catholic church, which back then was in conflict with two formidable ideological opponents, the protestant church and the culturally advancing ottoman turks.

So it’s quite interesting that on the cover for her fourth album, Hana Vu chooses the position of Holofernes. In this rendition, the image becomes a nightmare – the young woman slaughtered by a biblical hero in her sleep, falling victim to the artwork, a cannibalistic act of inter-feminine violence. Wouldn’t it have been more logical to choose Gentileschi’s supposed avatar of Judith, whose expression reflects the painter’s self prescribed “spirit of Caesar in the soul of a woman”?

The choice makes a lot of sense in light of the emotional landscape of Romanticism: there’s an overarching, harsh depression invoked throughout, a sense of stagnation and hopeless struggle. The music video to “Hammer” shows this in no uncertain terms, as Vu relives the same movements over and over again. To a rousing slacker rock backdrop, Vu recounts “And I called the doctor / And I said my heart is wrong / And I called the pastor / And I said I can’t go on / And therе is no answer / And I just can’t be saved / And I swing thе hammer / Just as hard the other way”. In the video, she plays with zodiac imagery (a celestial crab wrestling with an all too toxic scorpion… yea, been there), opening up an inner mythology that is continued by the shocking “Care”. The emotional bluntness of the prior song explodes here in gory detail. In a thematic link to the Tomie series, Vu’s decapitated head does not remain still, and instead comes back to life and sings the song in a backwards movement to the origin of her death. Lyrically, Vu approaches the same loneliness and heartbreak with stubborn resolve: “And you don’t care and that’s okay, it doesn’t matter either way / I’m just a book you throw away, here I go”.

Aesthetically, it makes sense that Romanticism is less diverse and expressionistic than its predecessor Public Storage. Where Vu’s 2021 outing almost seemed like a throwback to Björk’s Post in its embrace of genre diversity and electronic experimentation, Romanticism utilises an earthy alt rock palette with a clearly defined slacker attitude.

Still, the guitar compositions are just as refined and cleverly structured, as they express melancholia and sorrow with great maturity. A subtle ballad like “How It Goes” is just as affecting as the wistful rocker “22”, with Vu’s impressive alto range suggesting an old soul that is trapped within cyclical motions. When she sings of broken relationships, the images seep into each other, questioning purpose and empathy – “Lay in bed / I can’t be anywhere but in my head / Keep turning corners on an endless street / I’ll take a picture as you walk past me”.

Within the misery, Vu still finds playfulness. “Find Me Under Wilted Trees” opens with the same line as “Everybody Wants to Rule the World” by Tears for Fears – “Welcome to your life” – as it expresses rousing euphoria the size of arenas: “Welcome to your life, it’s a big deceit / The lovers at your call found you incomplete / If you wonder about me / Let me tell you, so do I, come and lay with me”.

Romanticism takes the form of a Bildungsroman, at least figuratively, with Vu slowly advancing through polymorphic states of depression and growing as a person, finally leading to the resolve of nu-disco banger “Play” and the wildly romantic breakup song “I Draw a Heart”: “I draw a heart onto your suitcase / See you in the new year / Promise I’ll come back to you / Don’t stay to sing me happy birthday / It’s just like the last one / I won’t be going home with you”.

Vu is haunted by herself – by her past, her inability to let go, her fierce and strong willingness to fight. This renders the allegorical nightmare of the cover-art all the more relatable – she will grasp and push against the advancing blade even when her head comes off. As closer “Love” expresses – with the might of an early Arcade Fire composition: “I just want it to stop / I just want to let go / I just want to go on / Well I guess this is love / I don’t know what to say / I don’t know how to stop”.

Yes, Romanticism isn’t quite as nuanced and colourful as the work of Vu’s younger self – it’s more physical, more withered and broken. But in that, it’s also an honest and genuine reflection of growing up, as in: facing trauma, grief, frustration and self-hatred. Like Gentileschi, who managed to express herself in a timeless and vastly impactful manner while in her early 20s, Vu finds the same gentility and sophistication that signifies great art, and this spirit – at times frightening in its honest immediacy – is inspiring and invigorating.