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Jenny Hval
Innocence Is Kinky Thomas May , November 13th, 2013 06:36

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Can innocence be kinky? It's certainly true that these categories are generally presented as disjoint and incompatible, the former prized whilst the latter is denigrated or, at least, suppressed, hidden away. Yet, the relationship between the two is, of course, infinitely more complex than a simple binary opposition. At one point during the sound and light installation that formed an early incarnation of Jenny Hval's Innocence Is Kinky project, the Norwegian artist's film-based study of Joan of Arc was interrupted by a close-up of pornstar Sasha Grey's face with the accompanying text: "There's a big market for the 'young girl' type fetish..." With this single gesture Hval successfully undermines any sense of a clearly delineated distinction between these concepts. The meaning of the text is clear: a lot of money has been made from the fact that innocence not only can be, but often is, kinky.

It's a fascinating dynamic, and one that clearly exerts an irresistible pull on Hval whose work as a musician has continually sought to deconstruct any boundary between the two categories. On 2011's Viscera, her debut album under her own name, Hval's sexually charged lyrics were delivered with an overtone of naive childishness, her Joanna Newsom-like vocals cloaked in ephemeral clouds of acoustic sound – the album's opening line: "I arrived in town with an electric toothbrush pressed against my clitoris". And what was so arresting about this juxtaposition didn't lie in the contrast but rather the sense of fusion, of alchemy, between these signifiers of the pure and the impure: Viscera exuded both innocence and sexuality yet, at the same time, something else, something altogether more elusive.

  That such supposedly antithetical categories can be shown to be so inextricably entwined shouldn't be a surprise. Just as any concept of light would be nonsensical without an attendant knowledge of darkness, so too is any understanding of innocence reliant on notions of guilt and sin. Thus, like two sides of the same coin, purity is, almost by definition, implicated alongside impurity: or, more abstractly, the positive side of any such dichotomy is destined to retain a trace of – to remain tied to, however intangibly – the negative.  

It's on this level that the title of Jenny Hval's captivating second album should be understood. Innocence Is Kinky doesn't just explore the interaction between its two titular categories; rather, this album emanates from a place where all distinctions have been eroded, where the perpetual slippage of meaning has left only a heady swirl of evocative images and impressions. It's a faintly surreal listening experience, in that sense. Hval's lyrics continually defamiliarise the familiar. The body becomes an alien entity, repellent and lying beyond the agency of the individual ("I can smell what's there on the inside"). And the private space of Hval's bedroom is infiltrated by over-exposed images of "people fucking on [her] computer".  

With frequent PJ Harvey collaborator John Parish behind the mixing desk, Hval's lean four-piece thrashes between opposing musical poles, questioning any divisions between the visceral and the cerebral, the beautiful and the ugly: taut post-punk melts into weightless ambient-pop, which in turn erupts into muscular out-rock. Yet, rather than feeling expansive or eclectic, Innocence Is Kinky retains a knotted, claustrophobic demeanour, labyrinthine and impenetrable in its complexity. This is music born of a destructive urge, but there's an ecstasy in such destruction: in a motif that recurs throughout the album, Hval fantasises about being burned alive and it is only as her body fragments and dissolves, as all stability and order disappears, that she achieves her long yearned-for transcendence.  

It's no coincidence that Hval chooses to quote David Lynch's Twin Peaks midway through the record, intoning "Fire, walk with me!" at the surging climax of centrepiece 'I Got No Strings'. Certainly, the suggestive world inhabited by Innocence Is Kinky could well be labelled with that most liberally applied of aesthetic descriptors: Lynchian. In the same way that the American director exposed the seedy and nightmarish underbelly of that sleepy town on the Canadian border, Hval has created a work that tears down our neatly demarcated distinctions – between good and bad, pleasure and horror, innocence and kink. Innocence Is Kinky is a remarkable album, one which delves beneath the surface and returns with something both seductive and strange.

scooper
Nov 13, 2013 6:30pm

Review is a little exegetic, but Hval deserves all the praise she's getting. This and 'Viscera' are treasures of the imagination (musical, lyrical, the whole package), at a time when a lot of the music being released and written about tends to lack it.

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John Doran
Nov 13, 2013 6:34pm

That's the maddest criticism of our criticism that I've ever read.

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