There’s a striking portrait of Jehnny Beth on the sleeve of her debut solo LP. The Savages singer is pictured as a marble statue, a museum piece taken from another place and time. It recalls the line that both opens and closes the album: “I am naked all the time”. It’s a statement of vulnerability, but also one of honesty.
To Love Is To Live is a stream of consciousness novel of an album – voices come in and out of focus, uttering internal monologues and meditations, faded mutters, grandiose statements, fragments of speech. It seems to be a study of gender, sexuality, innocence and sin, and ultimately identity; and it feels literary, in the way it deliberately and self-consciously turns over its themes.
The album’s first track, I Am, acts as a kind of prologue, foreshadowing later songs in some of its lyrics and introducing the theme of identity. The track has two distinct halves, with Beth singing abstract statements beginning “I am…” in each. In the first part her voice is heavily distorted and buried in sonic textures. It’s dreamlike, vague and slightly disorientating. Then in the second part her voice is bell-clear, singing coolly and clearly over piano and guitar. Now she sounds wide awake, and ready to take on the world.
If I Am is the prologue, then at the other end of the album we find an epilogue in Human, in which the lyrics from the first half of I Am are repeated. The album thus has a circular structure, a suggestion of eternal return. Join up the track titles of prologue and epilogue and you have a pretty unambiguous, albeit unnuanced, statement of identity.
But between those two bookends, it’s all much more ambiguous. Right at the heart of the album is lead single I’m The Man, which veers from hard-hitting electro-tinged punk to warm piano balladry, and then back again. Beth has said that the song is about not gender but ‘the human truth that evil exists in the world’, but it’s almost impossible not to read gender into its critique of power on some level. Is it manly to stick it to the man, she seems to ask. Used in the Peaky Blinders soundtrack, it features the unmistakable voice of series star Cillian Murphy.
He’s one of numerous literal male voices, appearing in counterpoint to Beth’s vocals. I’m The Man is followed by the snippets of voices that open The Rooms, which seem to be illustrating how maleness is conveyed through language and speech. Murphy returns for spoken word piece A Place Above. Joe Talbot of Idles, who has tacked around the prevailing winds of masculinity in his own lyrics, features in How Could You, an urgent slice of punk that harks back to the first Savages album.
To Love Is To Live is overwrought at times in how it strives to directly connect words with sounds: a guitar doing its best impression of a siren just as Beth sings the word ‘ambulance’; the sound of crickets chirping in French Countryside; the effect of heavy inhalation that’s applied to the word ‘breath’ in I Am. The vocals are often treated, sometimes heavily distorted and displaced – and often this is effective, bringing out the album’s central theme: the voice, or voices, of someone trying to articulate their identity even before they’ve properly comprehended it for themselves.
And maybe this is the crux of the album: Beth is perhaps still figuring out her identity, and this comes across not just in the words but also in the music, which veers from sub-bass and punk to gentler, more ambient sounds. She is acknowledging that identity is fluid, it changes over time. This is a portrait of where she is now.