Album Review: Jenny Hval – Classic Objects

[4AD; 2022]

If you deserve to be called a motherfucker, then Jenny Hval is going to call you out for being a motherfucker. Few artists have been able to so pointedly use common sense as a weapon against rigid social structures, sexual misinformation, and people’s need to browbeat truth into oblivion in light of their own insatiable desire for authority as she has. Throughout her career, Hval has used both eloquence and plainspoken ideas to convey the crushing weight of personal and societal expectations, as well as the mental devastation that weight can inflict on anyone who doesn’t conform to a specific physiological, economic, or sexual standard.

Her songs don’t necessarily attempt to offer concrete answers on how we can combat the legion of issues facing those within these marginalized spaces, but they do provide a place for those people to realize that their struggles aren’t happening in a vacuum – that they are surrounded by other likeminded souls who understand the specific circumstances facing them. Hval drapes her work in clever ambiguities, emotional detours, and a desire to upend our expectations in service to a greater narrative complexity. And it all starts by bending genres like plastic straws, sidestepping normative emotional arcs, and focusing on a volatile intimacy that speaks to each of us in ways we often don’t understand on first listen.

Her latest record, Classic Objects, is a particularly knotty entry into her discography, seeming almost subdued in contrast to her usual musical methodology. There are moments of heightened realism and melodic bombast, but that’s not where its gravity is centered. The music is often reserved, muted, and looking for wonder in small details.

There’s acres of underlying context here which must be addressed if we’re to properly divine the message behind these songs. Opener “Year of Love” finds her contemplating the concept of love within the trappings of a social contract, and, possibly, being envious of those who operate within that framework without being stifled by its often-regressive attitudes. These thoughts come unbidden, like sudden sparks in the night, to eat away at our resolve and make us question the validity of our personal acuities.

Can we admire aspects of these constructs while also seeking to break their perceived hold on our collective emotional wellbeing? She sings: “In the year of love I signed a deal with patriarchy / Now watch me step into the place where you can see me: Look at me / You think I’m different but I’m a stagehand.” Is she complicit to its manipulations or does being aware of those trappings make a difference in how we approach it ourselves? Aided by gorgeous vocal harmonics, a brisk bit of martial percussion, and keys that arrive and disappear at a moment’s notice, the song tackles these contradictions as a way to ease us into Classic Objects‘ world of self-doubt and introspection.

There’s no lack of personal vivisection in Hval’s discography; it’s stuffed with stories that have felt too intimate to be shared, and yet, she’s always opted to drop the distance entirely between herself and her audience. For example, Classic Objects‘ second track “American Coffee” starts as an abbreviated biography before pinwheeling into poetry and nurses and French philosophy. Her voice catapults between higher and lower registers, supported by movements that sound suspiciously like late-90s pop.

It’s via these jaunty treks through her past that we come to see the conflict in all its oddly angled chaos. Can art continue to be purposeful if that purpose never alters? How can we avoid being defined by the ways in which our work hasn’t affected change of any meaning?

These are the darkly lit corridors that Hval explores across the record. Sometimes these thoughts aren’t even acknowledged on a conscious level. When we are feeling vulnerable or find ourselves buried in the past, we often lose the ability to differentiate between reality and some fantasized version of our lives. Classic Objects is her way of dealing with these internal struggles. On the surface, we know that our hard work is meaningful and needed to further our own interests and intentions, but there will always be that voice in the background calling into question our dedication, and even our ability, to communicate in a way that expresses universal truths without sacrificing personal expression.

She examines the commodification of art on the title track, a moody detour that details her experience trying to force worth onto something that should be outside of common market practices. “There was a painter in my first studio space / I remember she used to attach her own hair to her paintings.” These details are so exact and so human that we’re immediately placed within this tangible world by sheer force of will. The track touches on Baroque pop aesthetics but still maintains an understated presence. Like its follow-up, “Cemetery of Splendour”, “Classic Objects” derives its power from its corporeal existence, the way the music feels, the textures imparted and how they play on our senses. There is a physicality to these songs which reaches beyond the immediate surroundings and establishes a complete world of experiences and memories.

Standing as the album’s centerpiece, “Jupiter” feels like a lifetime of moments compressed into an eight-minute song. She ends it by singing “Sometimes art is more real, more evil / Just lonelier / Just so lonely”, a revelation so profound in its implications for both Hval personally and her music in a broader sense that it’s difficult to unpack the meaning until you’ve revisited these songs a handful of times. Using a fuzzed-up pop ambiance to highlight the complicated elements here, she veers off into more experimental territory, fighting against darker ambient noises as the song reaches its end.

On “Freedom”, she looks beyond her own understanding to see the wider picture of art as social commentary and force for hopeful change, even if that change never comes. “I want you to go beyond my name / Realism is not a measuring cup / When I listen deep, I’m not my owner / Maybe I never was.” These words play into the thought of art existing outside our cognitive awareness, of its survival precluding our own involvement. It’s not so much a resignation as it is an acceptance, a realization that those same darker voices calling us from the shadows can also give us purpose in redefining what our voices are truly meant to say. It’s a short but effective ambient pop track that brings us full circle in our examination of art, experience, and how we rationalize our use of personal history in conceptualizing our creations.

Hval has always stared unflinchingly into the maw of repressive ideologies and sought to relieve them of their power over people. On Classic Objects, she turns that oversight toward her own perceived associations with the institutes she scrutinizes and wonders as to the effectiveness of her words and the desire to evoke change in a world so bitterly opposed to even the smallest social and personal transformation. These self-doubts have always been present in her work, though they’ve generally been used as background context. Here, they possess a fierce independence, as if they exist apart from Hval’s own consciousness, a wall of pent-up emotion driving her to consider the ragged perspectives threaded throughout the songs.

As a rule, she’s not trying to subsume her audience (though there are select moments of incredible sensation); rather, she’s using the music, subtle and modest as it often is, to provide a sturdy foundation from which to pick and pull apart these gnarled themes. Classic Objects is one of her most personal statements, filled with so much humanity and ache and hesitancy that it can be painful to witness at times.

We find so much of ourselves in her internalization that we can’t help but be swept up in the torrent of emotion racing through the music. There is no place to hide. She brushes aside any semblance of pretense and addresses the inner workings of her mind and body with an honest and clear determination. She asks questions of herself for which there are no easy answers because she knows that it’s necessary to occasionally engage with the part of yourself that you keep hidden. If we don’t let the darkness in from time to time, reevaluating ourselves and our perspectives, how can we recognize the light when it tries to guide us? In its many guises, Classic Objects is that light, a profound statement from an artist bound by no traditions, and it is offered freely to those searching for all the questions they’ve yet to ask.