You may know the artist for the next installment of my top albums of 2015 list if you saw St. Vincent in North America last March. Clark’s national opener was Jenny Hval, a Norwegian songwriter who began her career in probably the first genre you think of when you hear about this Scandinavian nation: black metal. But her most recent album was not so intense, at least, not in that way. It is a shockingly raw album, with an eroticism about it that makes it fairly unsettling, and certainly one of the best of last year.
“We are at the end of history,” Hval sings repeatedly throughout Apocalypse, girl. As she establishes on this and many of her other albums, feminism has reached a critical mass: everyone knows the adversity women face, but we need to actively work toward fixing it or face imminent doom. Through a manipulation of elements on the spectrum of misogyny, Hval has bravely and crassly started (or contributed to) a dialogue on the paradigm shift that human history faces at this moment. And like any worthwhile cultural discussion, the options are to change or die.
Though this album does not take religion to task as much as it does other oppressive institutions, the structure of the story is spiritual in nature. “I’m 33 now, that’s Jesus’ age,” Hval worriedly sings during “Heaven,” one of the most cohesive tracks on the album. Those six words stay with you, primarily because of the perfect way Hval spits them out, in such a matter-of-fact singsong-like manner, but it’s more than that. She had already mentioned her age earlier, nearly in the same breath that she took down do-nothing idealists, but it’s not the number that fills her with fear. Growing older is simply not something that women are allowed to do, as the media reminds us that we need to constantly strive to be younger.
“Statistics and newspapers tell me I am unhappy and dying
That I need man and child to fulfill me
That I’m more likely to get this cancer
and it’s biology, it’s my own fault
it’s divine punishment for the unruly”
Unfortunately for women (and all of mankind), motherhood has a negative connotation. Society is ungrateful for everything women sacrifice in order to keep its very institution going. We not only create new life for the future of our race, but also dedicate our lives to raising them. The goal is to hopefully not turn our collective home into an unlivable mess, but judging by the state of our planet now, it can be hard to hold out hope that our children’s children will be able to salvage what we’ve left them. Hval uses this unease to make a point. “Are we mothering ourselves now?” she asks. And from the way she addresses it, the answer is no. We’ve let ourselves fall into chaos.
Another favorite motif of Hval’s involves explicit sexuality. She uses it to grab our attention in “Kingsize,” and it never really leaves the picture. The track that follows is about mutual masturbation. By the time you reach the end of the record, you’ve heard the term “cunt” countlessly. But she has a deeper purpose than superficially perking your ears; behind the objects of sexuality are real women with human needs. In the single “Sabbath,” Hval describes in detail a sadomasochistic fantasy, (which she had hinted to in the track preceding, “”Some Days,”) but here she finally reveals why she is consumed by this image, and yes, it all goes back to motherhood:
“I don’t think it’s about submission
it’s about holding and being held”
If you hadn’t noticed up to this point, I’ll be very direct: Hval is a master of wit. In one of my favorite moments on the record, she takes sarcasm to new heights, embracing tongue-in-cheek double entendres. Before hearing the track, ‘that battle is over’ comes off pushy. It seems to refer to something in the past, as if it were a shared memory, referring to “that” battle, rather than “The” battle. But the song has far more significant scope than I could have expected.
“You say that I’m free now,
the battle is over,
I can consume what I want now”
Unsurprisingly, Hval uses America as a broad example of feminism imploding. Her home country of Norway, nor most other developed nations, aren’t known for such blatant sexism quite like we are. And yet she addresses New York and, more broadly, America several time on Apocalypse, girl. This is what makes the line about socialism in the stanza above stand out. We are a nation that for so long has equated “socialism” with the enemy, yet those policies are what allow developed nations, like Norway, to prosper while maintaining the rights of its citizens. Bernie Sanders is trying to change the perception of socialism in the States, but Hval takes it a step further. In “That Battle is Over,” Hval suggests that all our problems are fixed. We can “consume” what we want she says, implying that the body image issues she mentions only a few measures prior have been eliminated, implying that we no longer need to cling to brands that rule the free marketplace, implying that if you sense any disparity, it’s all in your head.
But of course, this is absurd. We need to continue fighting, infinitely. There are systematic injustices permeating our society, and though the issues themselves may fade, there is always something else to fight for. Jenny Hval fights with her music, this record being a perfect example, though I pray that we do avoid such an apocalypse.