Live: Jenny Hval In Bristol

Norwegian singer-songwriter brings her unique arty sound to Bristol.

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A heady mix of lust and confusion, progressive pop sounds and performance art poses, Jenny Hval is a powerful live presence, even if her message is sometimes frustratingly fuzzy.

Musing on the complexities of female sexuality, religious exaltation and body imagery, Hval invokes a pantheon of greats, from PJ Harvey to Peaches, Laurie Anderson to Cindy Sherman.

Hval’s acclaimed new album Apocalypse, Girl features a range of collaborators from across the post-metal, noise rock and free jazz spectrum. But for this live show she has a sole musical partner, a reserved young man perched behind a mountain of electronic gadgets, and he couches her words in drones, crackles and throbs. Liberated by their live arrangements, these songs become much more discordant and experimental than their polished album blueprints.

Disguised beneath a shaggy blonde wig and baggy leisurewear, Hval delivers the opening number Kingsize slumped on an exercise ball, mimicking the album’s memorable sleeve photo. Her sexualised lyrics are mildly explicit, with references to ‘capitalist clit’ and ‘soft dick rock’. A motif of mouldy bananas adds to this recurring fixation on droopy decay.

Hval prowls the stage for Sabbath, a flood of soft-porn memories and eroticised equine imagery. This bleeds into Take Care Of Yourself, a restless meditation on intimacy and longing that builds from a warm rush of woozy melody into an electrical storm of gnarly distortion. Like a Patti Smith for the post-laptop age, Hval deals in stream-of-consciousness lyrics that are raw and rude, bristling with carnal energy.

Almost wholly reliant on Apocalypse, Girl material, this set moves through passages of grinding electro blues and prog folk. There’s a relatively restrained dream pop ballad called Heaven, and even a drowsy blast of Lana Del Rey that Hval dials up from her iPhone. The evening climaxes with That Battle Is Over, a deceptively sweet ballad that mocks end-of-history claims that feminism and socialism have run their course. But this isn’t a sloganeering sermon – more like an uneasy survey of a depressingly fragmented political landscape.

This may all sound forbiddingly arty, but Hval makes it funny and playful with her deadpan Nordic humour and quirky, confessional lyrics. She ends the show by removing her wig and outer clothes, carefully laying them down beside her on stage. Stripped to her short, spiky crop and body-hugging black suit, her breathing becomes loud and percussive as she slams the microphone into her chest. The female body as instrument, sex object, feminist statement, weapon and punchbag. Hval ultimately leaves us with more questions than answers, but sometimes questions are enough.

Stephen Dalton

Stephen Dalton has been writing about all things rock for more than 30 years, starting in the late Eighties at the New Musical Express (RIP) when it was still an annoyingly pompous analogue weekly paper printed on dead trees and sold in actual physical shops. For the last decade or so he has been a regular contributor to Classic Rock magazine. He has also written about music and film for Uncut, Vox, Prog, The Quietus, Electronic Sound, Rolling Stone, The Times, The London Evening Standard, Wallpaper, The Film Verdict, Sight and Sound, The Hollywood Reporter and others, including some even more disreputable publications.