It’s not always easy to fully digest the myriad concepts Jenny Hval works into her highly enjoyable, albeit highly theoretical albums. She’s meticulous as both songwriter and curator, each of her studio efforts exploring a fascinating and separate space unto itself, whether it’s voyeurism, vampirism or, most complex of all, love. On the surface, these ideas can seem occasionally academic, but they’re perhaps more significantly a kind of escapist form of exploring ideas that most of us keep hidden—masturbation, menstruation, or genuine human feeling. Her sixth album, Classic Objects, is another concept album of sorts, its lushly arranged songs exploring simple perspectives on everyday life, one that germinated from another elusive topic: Hval, herself.
The isolation and detachment from being able to perform at the outset of the pandemic left the Norwegian artist reflecting on who she is if she’s not able to present her intricate art-pop statements in front of an audience. “In 2020, like everyone else, I was just a private person,” Hval says in a press release. “I was reduced to ‘just me.’” Few of Hval’s albums have ever attempted to definitively answer who that person is or what that means, and Classic Objects isn’t conclusive in that regard either—nor is it a simplification of her approach. Yet on Classic Objects, Jenny Hval offers a perspective from the ground level rather than a 10,000-foot view.
The album opens with “Year of Love,” one of Hval’s most personal reflections, inspired in part by a marriage proposal that took place in the audience at one of her shows. Against a gorgeously luxurious arrangement of sophisti-pop synths, reggae and bossa nova rhythms, she attempts to reconcile her private life as a married person with the artistic ideas she explores and patriarchal critiques she puts forth, confessing, “You think that I’m different/ But I’m a stagehand/ Look, it’s there, under the ring—the imprint on my skin.” Not everything here carries this internal conflict, and Hval sometimes can’t help but spiral outward even when standing on solid ground, like on the shimmering art-pop build of “Jupiter,” whose chorus climaxes in one of her most cosmically cryptic couplets: “Jupiter call her/Into the ether.” The “her” could be Hval, or it might be someone else entirely, though the uncertainty itself is what makes the image so compelling.
The album’s central conceit of addressing more humble and relatable stories is perhaps best viewed as a means rather than an end, the songs sometimes veering from slice-of-life observations into something more surreal and oblique. It also doesn’t get in the way of Hval crafting some of her most immersive, richly arranged material. “American Coffee” opens with an anecdote about crying as a child when her mother left for work, and transitions into imagery of French nurses discussing philosophy, hovering in an ambient space before two and a half minutes in, when the song crystalizes into a satisfying slice of soulful space gospel. There’s a similar climactic rise and rush in the album’s seven-minute centerpiece, “Cemetery of Splendour,” which finds Hval narrating an itinerary of her surroundings: “trees, sticks, rocks… a branch, a pinecone.” Yet on the title track she confesses, “at times I have been obsessed with materials and textures,” as familiar a human impulse as there is, even as the gauzy sounds encircling her voice feel weightless and detached from earthly corporeality.
It feels appropriate that Classic Objects is Hval’s debut for 4AD, a label long synonymous with a kind of stately and sophisticated yet genre-averse art-pop and -rock sound identity. Hval only helps to expand that through these intricate and immaculately arranged songs, both her prettiest and her most accessible, if perhaps only a few degrees more than those of her previous album, 2019’s The Practice of Love. These songs are easy to get lost in, to get hypnotized by, which in some way helps to explain how even an album ostensibly about the things that make us human can still seem to fade into an ellipsis of abstractions; “a song isn’t just words, it has a melody, and the reason we have melodies is to step into the dark and jump off cliffs,” Hval says. Which perhaps suggests that the “just me” that Hval seemed so hesitant to confront isn’t really any different than the one we hear on her records, but even in that internal conflict, she can’t help but turn it into something beautiful.
Jeff Terich is the founder and editor of Treble. He's been writing about music for 20 years and has been published at American Songwriter, Bandcamp Daily, Reverb, Spin, Stereogum, uDiscoverMusic, VinylMePlease and some others that he's forgetting right now. He's still not tired of it.