Jenny Hval @ Kvarteret, Bergen
25 March 2011
‘It’s more than two years since we were last in Bergen’, Jenny Hval sheepishly reveals two songs into this show at Bergen’s recently renovated student venue, but despite this prolonged absence only around fifty people seem to have roused themselves to attend Hval’s return. Those of us who have made the effort, however, are in for a treat.
Hval is doing the rounds in support of her third album, Viscera, (her previous two came under the Rockettothesky moniker), and despite the often confrontational and theatrical nature of the material on that record, the initial impression projected by the singer is mild and almost shy. Sporting a silvery blonde bobcut and a traditional Norwegian jumper over a long chequered shirt, Jenny Hval exudes a tomboyish take on glacial femininity as she launches straight into the first lines of latest single ‘Blood Flight’, with only a mumbled ‘hi’ by way of introduction. Backed simply by drums and electric guitar, it is Hval’s distinctive vocals and febrile acoustic guitar that take centre stage, and whilst the sound system at Kvarteret has muddied many of the artists I’ve seen here before, today either they have got it bang on, or Hval’s voice is so pure and controlled that she can shine no matter what. A mixture of the two no doubt, but there’s no denying that Viscera is presented in crisp perfection. Indeed for an artist who largely eschews traditional song structure and embraces minute fluctuations of often jarring sound, Hval presents these songs in a form almost identical to that on the album. Which is not to say that she is unable to shed new light on her music in the live forum.
The simple picked guitar motifs that are woven throughout pristine renditions of ‘Blood Flight’ and ‘How Gentle’ are rendered altogether more majestic and ominous on this grand scale, and every startling fluctuation of Hval’s distinctive and often intentionally abrasive vocals feels even more effortlessly impressive. In these opening moments I can’t help feeling, though, that there is something wrong about the visual side of the show – these songs feel like they would flourish as the soundtrack to some eerie or surreal projections, the life and chiaroscuro of the music married to a comparable visual experience. Instead we have only Hval and her two bandmates, bathed in simple blue or red light.
Throughout those first two songs Hval largely sings with her eyes closed and when she does peek at the crowd she looks quickly away again. By the third track, though, she seems to settle down and start to revel in the theatricality of her music, and the viewer/performer relationship becomes a more comfortable one. She feels like the progenitor of her songs, not just the vehicle, and develops into a quietly mesmerising presence. ‘Not all limbs have… erections’; she opines at the start of album highlight ‘Portrait of the Young Girl as an Artist’, rolling the last word around in her mouth as – eyebrow raised – her glance flits provocatively over the audience. When the song explodes into exhilarating torrents of powerful guitar Hval proves equally adept at matching this musical shift vocally, effortlessly easing her otherworldly croon into a quasi-snarl.
Perhaps the most controversial moment of Viscera is its first: ‘Engines in the City’ opens with the immortal lines “I arrived in town/ With a toothbrush/ Pressed against/ My clitoris”. Quoting this in the headline of their review, Hval muses conversationally, ensured her ‘most read’ status on Norwegian national paper Dagbladet’s website for the first and only time. Her demeanour here, if nothing else, supports her suggestion that that paper took her far too seriously.
Critics frequently dismiss Hval’s work as obscure and dense; the reality is that it is music of subtle shifts, of sudden eruptions of melodic beauty, of imagistic poetry, and of carefully wrought flights of fancy. In other words it is music that needs you to listen carefully. Perhaps because by definition concert performances require your undivided attention, Hval seems easier to accept in the flesh. The tracks from Viscera reveal all their nuances and contrasts, from the lush Kate Bush-esque rallying cry ‘Milk of Marrow’ to the gothic drama of ‘Golden Locks’, and there is even time for a haunting rendition of Medea’s most unforgettable moment: ‘Grizzly Man’. “Something with bear lyrics”, she offers afterwards, her summation falling absurdly short of what is a simply stunning song.
For the encore microphones and drums are set aside as the onstage trio deliver a breathtaking unplugged take on folk ditty ‘Silver Fox’. It’s a moment of intimacy that bridges the gap between sound and presentation most effectively, but long before this there had been no denying the singular talent of Jenny Hval.
First published on nomusicmedia.com, 2011