Every week, we tell you about an album we think you need to spend time with. This week’s album is Classic Objects, Norwegian experimental musician and novelist Jenny Hval’s latest release.
Jenny Hval’s catalog is bursting at the seams with complex philosophical — sometimes verging on academic — musings, observations and inquisitions on a range of societal influences: capitalism, gender, ownership, the nature of having a body, self-care. As an artist, she has a knack for fluidly interrogating the relationships between the various outer forces that shape our collective and individual experiences. Known for her evocative lyrics, her words unpredictably run the gamut from vast and outlandish ideas to hyper-specific detail, malleably united around a common concept.
On 2016’s Blood Bitch, she explored abjection and body horror through characters like vampires, imagery like coffins and notable phrases like “soft dick rock.” On her 2018 EP, she collaborated with jazz musicians and employed improvisation and repetition to evoke and explore the subconscious mind. Even in her earlier work — while they’re certainly not all explicitly “concept albums” — Hval clearly gravitates toward unifying themes to bind her collections of songs together.
Her latest record and debut on 4AD, Classic Objects, is her most all-around focused effort, perhaps because its contents are largely sourced from within. Heavily influenced by the changes in lifestyle that the pandemic forced for artists like herself, Hval shifted her gaze inward, her work more introspective and personal than ever before.
“In 2020, like everyone else, I was just a private person,” Hval said in a statement on the record. “No artists were allowed to perform. I was reduced to ‘just me.’”
In turn, the record finds Hval interrogating her identity — especially, but not limited to, her role as an artist and her relationship to her art. On the stand-out choral-backed “American Coffee,” she shares a series of details in her life story, wonders how her life might be different had she attended art school, remembers having a UTI while watching La Passion de Jeanne d'Arc, tells us she panics when she gets behind the wheel of a car. “I have sworn to drive again this year / I was taught how but I never taught myself to believe / Or to run, or cook, or care, or even love,” she sings. The songs don’t strive to make grand statements on The State of Things, but rather portray an honest sound of someone probing their inner world, pondering exactly what “just me” might consist of. On “Year of Love” she wryly pokes fun at her recent marriage: “In the year of love, I signed a deal with patriarchy.”
The press release for the album refers to Classic Objects as her “version of a pop album,” and while it’d sound jarring amongst a Top 10 pop lineup from any decade, it does share the genre’s aesthetic qualities of levity and an auditory shimmer. In the context of her past work, her evasive soprano could take on a chilling and ghost-like quality. But among the fuzzy guitars of “Jupiter” and the air-light harp on “Freedom,” the bright percussion of “Cemetery of Splendour,” it can evoke a more grounded, more legible Elizabeth Fraser, Björk and other falsetto-loving, left-of-center pop gods. Even if its classification as “pop” is muddy at best, Hval’s personal vulnerability and sonic sparkle on Classic Objects suits her, resulting in a playful, yet continually thought-provoking listen.
Amileah Sutliff is a New York-based writer, editor and creative producer and an editor of the book The Best Record Stores in the United States.