On “The Practice of Love,” Jenny Hval Reaches Out
In inviting collaborators to the table, Hval has crafted her most evocative and pop-structured record to date.
“I think that I’ve been slightly over-interpreted based on a few enjoyable lines,” Jenny Hval says, a hint of gentle mockery in her tone. Such “enjoyable lines” across the Norwegian experimenter’s decade-long career might include the following: “At night, I watch people fucking on my computer” (the title track of 2013’s Innocence Is Kinky); “What is soft dick rock?” (“Kingsize,” from 2015’s Apocalypse, girl); “A million bedrooms with hands softly lulling our divine cocks and cunts” (“That Battle Is Over,” also from Apocalypse, girl).
On Hval’s newest album, The Practice of Love, it’s as though she’s never employed such attention-grabbing lyrics…well, almost. Listeners may well interpret the lyrics “Let her sketch out / Her rabbit hole / Her pleasure dome” and “Like I used to dream of fucking / Before I knew how” from respective singles “High Alice” and “Ashes to Ashes” as sexual, but Hval insists they are not. “Many times, I reference body parts and it’s not necessarily sexual,” she says. “You can find rabbit holes in anything if you really want to.”
Most of The Practice of Love is instead about non-sexual human connection. “I really wanted to reach out to others,” Hval says of the album’s main goal. She describes her new songs as “not as statement-oriented” and “more open,” in part because her fellow artists are among the people she hopes her lyrics will most strongly appeal to. To connect with other creators, Hval wrote much of The Practice of Love about, well, creation—specifically, writing.
Her open-armed embrace of ’90s rave, trance, and electronic sounds inspired her lyrical focus on writing. “I look for things that evoke specific feelings, like when you smell someone’s perfume, and you remember something because you’ve smelled it before, even though you can’t remember which person it was on,” she says. “A lot of ’90s synth sounds have that effect. It’s a very immediate connection. I was hearing that from the very beginning and writing lyrics.”
In letting her music guide her creation-focused lyrics, Hval has written her dance-friendliest, most pop-structured songs to date. On “Ashes to Ashes,” Hval meditates on the process of writing over a gyrating blend of dance music and dream pop: “She had this dream about a song…every beat went all the way down / Into little holes in the ground / It had the most moving chord changes.” Similarly, on “Ordinary,” shortly after the question “Can I only write these things / Not all the other things?” is aired, clanging digital percussion gradually enters the fray, transforming the song’s eighth-note synths from questioning to resolute as the song builds itself a massive dancefloor.
It’s not Hval who asks this question on “Ordinary.” That honor belongs to Vivian Wang of Singaporean art-rock unit The Observatory, whom Hval had seen play live before collaborating with her on four The Practice of Love tracks. Wang is just one of three people who feature on a handful of the album’s songs. In other words, with Love, the mostly solitary Hval literally, not just figuratively, reached out to other artists.
“I look for things that evoke specific feelings, like when you smell someone’s perfume, and you remember something because you’ve smelled it before, even though you can’t remember which person it was on.”
In addition to Wang, the album features French experimentalist Félicia Atkinson, whom Hval has yet to meet in person, on its final three tracks. Australian folk musician Laura Jean, described by Hval as “an old friend from way back,” features on another three Love tracks. All three artists are present on penultimate track “Six Red Cannas,” which drifts through rays of trance-like synths before exploding into a cathartic pulsing of kick drums and, later, programmed cymbals and snares.
“I wanted to hear my words spoken or sung by other people,” says Hval. “I want to give people room to [have] a conversation. Even if it’s just a backing vocal, it’s something that can be heard and be valuable for the listener and the artist.”
The magic of The Practice of Love is that listeners might not even notice Hval’s collaborations if not for those “featured” markers in its song titles. Her collaborators sing and speak with voices remarkably familiar to her own, and she’s intentionally blended them all. “I’ve worked very hard on placing things organically so it’s not so easy to hear who is who and what is what,” Hval says. “I’m glad that people are mistaking one for the other.”
For example, on the soft rave of “Accident,” which bursts into percussive potency after a steady building of tension, Laura Jean’s backing vocals could pass for Hval harmonizing with herself. Though the song is a reflection on childlessness, Hval makes sure to mention writing: “She is made for other things / Born for cubist yearnings / Born to write.” Likewise, on an initial listen to opener “Lions”—another track that brilliantly pulls off the album’s foundational drumless-synths-detonate-into-dancefloor-purgatory trick—Vivian Wang’s recitation of what Hval calls a “failed monologue meant to describe a forest in the north of Norway that was never christened” could pass for Hval intoning a fable in her deepest register.
The album’s bravest adventure, though, is one of the two songs on which Hval doesn’t collaborate. On “High Alice,” which starts with programmed drums slapping at full intensity and then adds synthetic bubbling that conjures images of slowly spinning disco balls and neon lights, Hval pads her lyricism with nods to Alice in Wonderland. Lewis Carroll’s classic is a daringly commonplace cultural reference by Jenny Hval standards, given that her inspirations for her previous album, 2016’s Blood Bitch, included a bunch of mostly obscure ’70s and early ’80s horror films. Naturally, Hval referenced the classic novel in service of a reflection on writing.
“I wanted to hear my words spoken or sung by other people. I want to give people room to [have] a conversation. Even if it’s just a backing vocal, it’s something that can be heard and be valuable for the listener and the artist.”
“I did enjoy going from referencing Alice in Wonderland to referencing someone who talks about writing,” she says. “When you’re referencing something that’s so well-known, you have to have a bit of confidence if you think you should do this thing that everyone’s already done. I enjoyed bringing in this completely known-to-everyone aspect, because I’m the sort of artist whom you would think would bring in something very obscure.”
Hval’s references for Love generally shifted away from her previous, often hyper-specific interests. As she wrote about writing, she found herself “thinking like a writer,” abandoning filmic influences for poetic ones. “With that came a stronger focus on lyrics,” she says, even though the music at least partially inspired the lyrics.
“I heard these synth sounds and they did make me write something, so there’s definitely some kind of magical texture there that sets something,” Hval admits, almost as though the electronic styles of the ‘90s are themselves rabbit holes leading to lyrical inspiration. Hval would agree: “Your writing voice is a rabbit hole,” she says, “but that’s just where you enter.” FL