As opening lines go, the first lines of Viscera, recited in a dry and matter-of-fact manner, are certainly bold: ‘I arrived in town with an electric toothbrush pressed against my clitoris/After a few weeks, it ran out of batteries, humming silently between my lips.’ Stop sniggering at the back. With Viscera, Jenny Hval has opted to explore sensuality, the body, eroticism and female sexuality in a remarkably candid manner. Given that she has married these preoccupations to music that is flexible, free and, of itself, sensual and unconventional, some may find the results pretentious. Yet there can be little doubting that this is a brave, intensely personal work. Perhaps this is why it is the first album Hval has chosen to release under her own name, instead of under her usual Rockettothesky moniker.
With Viscera, Hval has aimed at ‘turning the body inside out’, documenting narratives relating to journeys and experiences within the body. Perhaps inevitably, Viscera might linger in the mind mostly for its unashamed reference to bodily functions and fluids, but Hval is also a keen surrealist with an eye for detail that is evocative as well as provocative. She is interested as much in texture and sensation as she is in making aggressive statements. The brilliant, bewitching Blood Fight is perhaps the best example here, with its delicate acoustic guitar part rising and falling, and with her extraordinary voice traversing across a wide range.
Viscera is musically fascinating, its acoustic instrumentation embellished by weird and wonderful electronic touches from Helge Sten, better known for his work as Deathprod or with free improvisers Supersilent. Sten’s input is perhaps most apparent on the strange and compelling This Is A Thirst. It is defiantly minimal, and has moments of disarming, bucolic beauty. The judicious application of percussion, as opposed to a full drum kit, also adds to the sense of Viscera as a textural, sensitive work.
The star of this music is undoubtedly Hval’s voice. Very little of her performance sounds pre-determined – instead, she journeys spontaneously where her themes take her, sometimes taking radical flight, at others sounding static or perhaps even robotic. The latter is certainly true of the cold and austere clarity with which she delivers those extraordinary opening lines. At other times, she sounds impassioned and adventurous, like a more combative Joni Mitchell.
This music is free and unrestrained in a way that some listeners may find uncomfortable, both dreamy and very physical. It is hard to classify according to any conventional genre boundaries. She has journeyed well beyond the confines of the traditional song form. It requires a determinedly open mind to enjoy Hval’s outlandish flights of fancy. In spite of perhaps a natural inclination to laugh at times, Viscera has a magnetism from which it is difficult to escape.