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Jenny Hval - Viscera

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Artist: Jenny Hval

Album: Viscera

Label: Rune Grammofon

Review date: Jul. 26, 2011

Viscera is Jenny Hval’s third album, but the first under her own name and not Rockettothesky. It’s also different in a more important way -- Hval acquired Supersilent’s Helge “Deathprod” Sten as her co-producer. Musically, Viscera continues an evolution displayed on those Rockettothesky releases. From the pop aspirations of the debut, To Sing You Apple Trees, through the synth-tinged anthems of Medea, the new album arrives at a more improvisation-based methodology.

Hval plays acoustic guitar, church organ and zither. She is joined by two veterans of the Oslo improv scene, Håvard Volden (previously with Hval in Rockettothesky) on guitars and psaltery, and Kyrre Laastad on drums, drum machine, synths and church organ. Hval says that she wanted to make free music without a conceptual framework, but realized after recording the album that all the songs deal with travelling in one way or another.

The music was composed and arranged by improvising, following Hval’s lyrics wherever they went. Given that, there is a remarkable coherence to the music, with much of it operating within recognizable folk or rock conventions rather than those of free improv. Hval remains at its core throughout -- whether singing or speaking, her pure-toned voice is a versatile instrument that she deploys effectively to convey the nuances and emotions of her subject matter.

The word “visceral” remains one of the more over-used adjectives in descriptions of music. In such contexts, it is most often meant figuratively (“instinctive, not intellectual”; “dealing with crude or elemental emotions”) rather than literally (“relating to the viscera”). In titling this album Viscera, Hval re-focuses attention on that literal meaning; the music here truly merits the description “visceral,” as the album’s subject matter is predominantly the human body itself. Crucially, Hval extends the term “viscera” beyond those organs normally covered by the word – the soft organs of the chest and gut - to include every body part.

Hval studied creative writing and performance at the University of Melbourne, and her novel Perlebryggeriet (The Pearl Brewery) was published in 2009. Her lyrics reveal the literary studies and she credits various literary figures as influences, notably Virginia Woolf. The album’s lyrics mix surrealist imagery with erotic language reminiscent of Anais Nin or The Story of O (apparently, O was an early working title for the album). The lyrics are striking from the opening track, “Engine in the City”: "I arrived in town with an electric toothbrush pressed against my clitoris / After a few weeks it ran out of batteries, humming silently between my lips / I am the engine now, I’ve learnt how to make that humming sound, together we make it.” On the closing title track, Hval imagines her liver and lungs falling out through her throat while trying yoga until finally, “and then the vocal cords flowed like seaweed out of my mouth.” Yes, visceral stuff. Musically, vocally and lyrically, Viscera commands attention.

By John Eyles

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