On 'Classic Objects,' Jenny Hval interrogates her identity as an artist
"When I listen deep, I'm not my owner," Jenny Hval sings towards the end of her new album Classic Objects. "Maybe I never was."
It's a concept the experimental Norwegian artist has explored again and again in her complex but playful body of work, matching dark synth-pop with lyrics that explore academic ideas about liberation and the self. On her 2015 album Apocalypse, girl, she wrestled cynically with "self-care" and feminist empowerment that ends with individual consumption; on 2019's The Practice of Love, she slipped in recorded conversations about being a childless woman in your 30s, and the realization that one is not "the main character" of life, but rather a "talking tree" or "witch."
All of Hval's albums, in their own way, attempt to untangle the same struggle: the reality that her art, her desires, her body, plagued by history's gaze and capitalism's exploitations, have to be continuously reclaimed. Her latest, Classic Objects, expands on that project with a fluid, lively meditation on what it means to center her identity around being an artist, while grappling with the reality that her art exists tethered to a wider marketplace — one which constantly threatens to erode the personal, radical nature of her work.
A press release for the album claims Classic Objects is Hval's "version of a pop album," but the music here isn't pop so much as it's lighter than her more foreboding past work. Gone is the darkwave of The Practice of Love or the medieval gloom of 2016's Blood Bitch, replaced here with a jazzy, New Age sound. On songs like "Year of Sky" and "Cemetery of Splendour," thunderous bongos and shaken percussion give the songs an earthy, ritualistic aura, the latter ending with a spoken list of oddities found outside — branches, pine cones, cigarette butts — and the sounds of buzzing insects and revving cars and cyclists.
There's also long been a fervent religiosity to Hval's work, from the straight line she draws between her own sensuality and the ecstatic visions of Joan of Arc on 2013's Innocence Is Kinky to the throbbing, church-worthy instrumentals of Apocalypse, girl. Even her lyrics, which tend to unspool in poetic, casually conversational threads, can sometimes sound like sermons. Here, she continues her fascination with chest-clutching, Americana spiritualism on songs like "Year of Love," with its flat, pop Manzarek-style organ, and "American Coffee," which has a soulful choir tracking Hval's wild-out vocals. Once you get to the line where she sings about nursing a UTI and staring back at her own blood in the toilet, you know what it means to be a congregant of Hval's church: to remember that underneath society's projections, you're just flesh and blood.
The brightness of the music on this album reflects the ways in which Hval's more theory-driven tendencies as a songwriter are pulled back a bit. On Classic Objects, Hval's radical politics tend to hang in the background, bobbing in and out of the music's line of vision like deflated balloons that have clustered at the edges of a party in its last hours. The album opens up when Hval latches onto one of them and pulls it close to her, reminding herself that, actually, maybe she isn't as in control as she thought.
Classic Objects vibrates with the tension of "what could have been" had Hval made different life choices. On the album opener "Year of Love," she cheekily surveys the weight of her marriage — an act that arguably threatens her artistic and financial independence — like a museum attendee circling a sculpture. "In the year of love I signed a deal with patriarchy," she sings. But she also fills the album with voices and faces from her personal past — a studio space partner; roommates; her mother, scared in childbirth — revisiting life-shifting details like a scrapbook, cataloging the moments that have informed her art and made her her — more than just an artist, more than just a married person. And yet a shadow version of herself remains, a concept she confronts on "American Coffee": "Not she who stayed behind / She who quit everything, music and identity."
For Hval, music and identity is everything, and often one and the same. And art and what it means to protect it, to keep it an experimental extension and reflection of her selfhood, is a central concern of Classic Objects — sometimes ambiently, sometimes directly. On "Jupiter," she confronts the reality that not all art shares her same revolutionary ideals, looking at her reflection in the designer product-lined windows of the gluttonous installation "Prada Marfa" in the Texas desert. "Sometimes art is more real, more evil," she sings. "Just lonelier." Elsewhere, in the middle of the album's finale, "The Revolution Will Not Be Owned," Hval takes a meta beat to call witness to the political limitations of her own art embedded in the fine print. "This song is regulated by copyright regulations / And dreaming doesn't have copyright," she sings, the song's instrumentals building up around her. "I guess you could say: The revolution will not be owned."
Hanging over every minute of Classic Objects is the reminder that art and self-expression in its most potent form — vulnerable and politically unsparing — is precious, always threatened by the prospect of commercial ruin. Hval's work isn't easily codified, messily pushing and prodding against preconceived ideas about gender, sex, labor and desire, and so it constantly runs the risk of being flattened. And when she excavates her discomfort here with institutions like marriage and easily marketable strains of art, she shines a spotlight on the ways in which capitalist forces reorganize both art and love, threatening to mute their possibilities. Even the last few minutes of "Cemetery of Splendour," in which the trampling steps and trash of humans have invaded a natural terrain, traffic sounds dueling with the buzzing of insects, hold so much tension in such a small invasion.
Classic Objects also meets a particularly fraught moment for musicians like Hval on the fringes of the industry, navigating art as a passion and as a profession. Artists have never been faced with more options for distributing their music, each of which comes with its own complicated set of parameters and unintended implications upon participation. The industry's reliance on the streaming service Spotify, which was criticized recently for failing to moderate COVID-19 misinformation and racial slurs in podcaster Joe Rogan's show, has led some users and artists to pull their accounts and music from the site in protest. Recently the scrappy website Bandcamp, a popular digital music store known for paying indie artists and labels fairly, was acquired by the company Epic Games, raising questions about the website's future commitment to independent artists. Never has it seemed so exhausting for artists to figure out how to maintain listening relationships with their audience without compromising its power or their politics.
What makes Classic Objects so poignant is how Hval avoids a clean, neutered sloganizing of thought, wading deep into more complicated waters. There's no defeat or triumph on Classic Objects, so much as a rolling conversation with the self about the space art should occupy in her life, and how it should reflect her worldview. Winding down the hallways of her past, to the moments and voices that have shaped her artistic identity, she emphasizes that every day, every moment, presents a choice: to give up the hard work of art, an integral part of Hval's identity, or settle for an easier existence where it's defanged. Hval begins her album with a song that notes the contractual regulations of her marriage, and ends with a song that references the contractual regulations of her music, as if to remind listeners that, still, nothing is free from commercialist forces: art, love — or are they the same? How you fight it, and whether you do, remains the eternal question.
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