It seems like each new Jenny Hval album is billed as “the poppiest Jenny Hval album yet.” That was certainly the case with 2019’s The Practice Of Love — which, thanks to bangers like “Ashes To Ashes” and all manner of lush and silvery synths, elicited some comparisons to dance music. Yet again, that’s the narrative with Classic Objects, Hval’s latest album and debut on 4AD. As ever, the story is more complicated than that.
Across her career, Hval has manipulated pop forms and mainstream ideas. That continues on Classic Objects, an album that is, yes, one her most accessible — perhaps even more accessible than The Practice Of Love. But that doesn’t mean Classic Objects is straightforward in execution nor theme, and it doesn’t mean that the album isn’t still capable of confounding your expectations. From The Practice Of Love, perhaps we could’ve imagined Hval’s journey continuing into even more direct and infectious directions. Instead, Classic Objects could almost come across as lounge-y, new age-y warmth filtered through Hval’s idiosyncratic eye, a series of gorgeous melodies buoyed by mellow keys and a surprising amount of bongos.
A more organic and human sound makes sense given Classic Objects’ genesis. Like many artists, Hval found herself in an odd place during lockdown, forced to stay at home and with her life as a performer indefinitely on hold. This led her to thinking about how it was “just me,” but then poking at the idea of what just Jenny Hval really meant. “This made me want to write simple stories,” Hval explained at the time of the album’s announcement. She looked back on moments in her life when she had otherwise been stripped of an artistic identity, of “value,” and wrote direct recollections — but, from there, memories and personal experiences mutated, melded with other imagery, became strange. “After all, 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,” she said.
You can almost hear this process directly paralleled in the songs themselves. Aside from the brief and dreamlike “Freedom,” every song on the album comes into being right in front of you. Beginning quiet and watery, drifting in, before new elements enter — jumpy guitar and organ on “Year Of Love,” tumbling percussion groovy on “American Coffee” and then elemental on “Year Of Sky,” celestial synths and crashing cymbals on “Jupiter.” As the songs’ narratives complicate and twist, the structures build up and up, sometimes reaching something explosive and otherworldly before collapsing again, sputtering out, slowly drifting out on the same currents that carried them in.
One of the specific ways in which Classic Objects was touted as “Jenny Hval’s version of a pop album” was the idea that the songs adhere to a traditional verse/chorus structure more than ever before. And that is sort of true. But because of how these songs emerge more than start, it’s almost like you’re hearing Hval work her away around those structures, letting them bleed out or arranging them in peculiar ways — like she is considering the idea of writing a pop song before she shows you the pop song she wrote. So often, she is sing-speaking in the beginning, letting the story crystallize for a few minutes before suddenly bursting into completely entrancing choruses. In several instances, these payoffs are huge: the straight-up beautiful chorus of “Jupiter,” the celestial melody in “Cemetery Of Splendour” punctured by a spoken lineage of discarded items (detritus like cigarette butts and candy wrappers), the final refrain of closing track “The Revolution Will Not Be Owned.”
Classic Objects has a transfixing way of singling out major life moments, then freely mingling them with banal imagery, or dissecting the banality inherent even in those major life moments. “Year Of Love” is one of the most striking examples of this, with Hval recalling signing marriage papers, insistent on the legal formality of it while reckoning with patriarchal structure; this then turns to a story of a proposal happening during one of her shows, and how the moment upended her perception of her voice, of the song she was singing. A track like “Year Of Love” is just as conceptually sophisticated as Hval’s old essay-based songs, but the shocking thing about Classic Objects is how you can almost miss Hval’s words for the first time because of how totally they can be cloaked in transporting melodies. You almost want to slyly laugh to yourself when you realize she’s hiding the words “normcore institution” in a pretty aside.
Throughout Classic Objects, stories like that turned, in Hval’s own words, to the absurd the more she delved into the music. Sometimes, it’s just the way a song can carry a person through strange memory holes, as on “American Coffee” when a persistent rhythm allows Hval to flit from old images of her mother, her hometown, questions of who she would’ve been had she not left, who she became after living in other countries. When “Jupiter” came out, Hval said it had become a “post-apocalyptic road trip” that begins at the art installation Prada in Marfa, but then uses the desert as a place where “values, genres, representation, and relationships are breaking down.”
Much of Classic Objects is that breakdown. In its name, it suggests its pop structures and Hval’s own memories. In its songs, you’re lured by some of the most unabashed beauty Hval has ever allowed into her writing. Then she does what she’s always done best. In following her own narratives down whichever strange pathways they desired, she’s crafted an album of fractured memoir and flickering dreamscapes that allow you to turn your own memories over and over in different lights, too. Just as The Practice Of Love wrestled with complex ideas but suggested a sound of peace, Classic Objects takes disconnected snapshots of a life and makes them feel transcendent. Whether in its rippling or soaring moments, Classic Objects’s music is alluring enough to make you want to follow Hval as she walks into the dark and jumps off those cliffs.
Classic Objects is via 4AD on 3/11.
Other albums of note out this week:
• Franz Ferdinand’s Hits To The Head
• Drug Church’s Hygiene
• GHOST’s IMPERA
• Widowspeak’s The Jacket
• Fly Anakin’s Frank
• The Boo Radleys’ Keep On With Falling
• BODEGA’s Broken Equipment
• Young Guv’s GUV III
• Loop’s Sonancy
• Alex Cameron’s Oxy Music
• Maia Friedman’s Under The New Light
• Hoodoo Gurus’ Chariot Of The Gods
• For King And Country’s What Are We Waiting For
• A. Billi Free & The Lasso’s Holy Body Roll
• Maneka’s Dark Matters
• Rex Orange Country’s WHO CARES?
• Brad Armstrong’s Heart Like A Sigil
• Yelawolf & Shooter Jennings’ Sometimes Y
• Ramesh’s Eternal Spring
• Clams Casino & Ryota Nozaki’s Winter Flower Reimagined
• Elzhi & Georgia Anne Muldrow’s Zhigeist
• Wednesday’s Mowing The Leaves Instead Of Piling ‘Em Up
• Warfare’s Doomsday
• The Grateful Dead’s Road Trips Vol. 1 No. 4 — From Egypt With Love
• Trey Anastasio’s Mercy
• PJ Harvey’s The Hope Six Demolition Project – Demos
• Junk Drawer’s The Dust Has Come To Stay EP
• Orion Son’s Getaway EP
• Jane Lai’s Received Receipt EP