Jenny Hval wants to make you uncomfortable. Apocalypse, girl, the Norwegian’s fifth album, aims to free sexuality and dismantle capitalism’s role as its puppeteer. Her art rock pushes more boundaries than its low-key jazz and slam poetry roots might let on. As she undermines gender norms and social expectations of our bodies, Hval gracefully finds empowerment through vulnerability.
Apocalypse, girl opens with the spoken word number “Kingsize”, which features lines by Danish poet Mette Moestrup: “Think big, girl, like a king/ Think kingsize.” With that, Hval begins her interrogation. “What is soft dick rock?” she asks, detailing images of bananas rotting in her lap and giving her a rash. As flies gather around the fruit, she notes society’s inability to be comfortable with genitals, distancing herself from the shame that hangs heavy on the human body.
On “That Battle is Over”, Hval sings over chilling organ about what it means to be alive, harmonizing with herself like Laurie Anderson and Dirty Projectors. Breathy vocals mingle with nervous tempos as she collides the political into the sexual. “Statistics and newspapers tell me I am unhappy and dying,” she sings, questioning science and what can be changed by free will.
She’s not alone in this battle. For Apocalypse, girl, Hval was joined in the studio by cellist Okkyung Lee, Swans’ Thor Harris, harpist Rhodri Davies, Jaga Jazzist’s Øystein Moen, and noise musician Lasse Marhaug. With her friends improvising beside her, Hval has more room to stretch her arms and her words within the music. That burgeoning sense of self comes through particularly on the smoky “Sabbath”, where her examination of submission between two children kissing raises uncomfortable questions as she watches the boy shower from a godlike spot above him.
Sonically, Apocalypse, girl is a retreat compared to 2013’s Innocence is Kinky, a jagged album poking with harsh guitars. Here, Hval forces us into uncomfortable informalities instead of brash intimacy. We’re stripped naked with fruit metaphors, intentionally handed new nouns, and dizzied in a landscape that blurs traditional song structures, especially in the vaguely floating melody of “Some Days”.
Apocalypse, girl replicates the kind of pain that moves us. Our failures, not our successes, change us most. The most glaring shock here comes from Hval’s repeated pronunciation of the word “cunt.” It first appears on “Take Care of Yourself” in a casual reference to masturbation. Hval knows that the word, a slur that’s resisted complete feminist reclamation, means trouble, but she treads with indisputable courage throughout the album. Apocalypse, girl is an understated mesh of free jazz and artful improvisation, guiding us out of the nightmare capitalism has dreamed for us and into sexual liberation and individual rebirth.
Essential Tracks: “That Battle is Over”, “Sabbath”, and “Heaven”