Alluring and strange
Jenny Hval at the Famous Spiegeltent, Sydney Festival, 19 January 2016

Photo by Jamie Williams courtesy of Sydney Festival.

Jenny Hval walks on stage wearing a pair of disposable overalls, accompanied by a male musician and a female dancer, similarly dressed. In their zippered paper outfits, the three give the appearance of nuclear fallout survivors in a student film. This is apropos: Hval’s most recent album, Apocalypse, girl (2015), evokes a world that is quietly and cheaply rotting away. On the album, Hval confronts the homilies of contemporary capitalism and feminism with a sharp, surreal wit, suggesting that the latter creed is, too often, a handmaiden to the former. “Getting paid / Getting laid / Getting married / Getting pregnant,” she sings on ‘Take Care of Yourself’, which she repeats during tonight’s performance like a chant.

I have described Apocalypse, girl elsewhere as a form of experimental folk music, but in this live setting the songs veer closer to performance art. Hval’s dancer fulfils the role of an interpreter, or maybe an alter ego, of the songs; as Hval sings, her dancer executes movements that fall somewhere between seduction and aerobics routine. The ambiguity is rather the point, because Hval’s songs take place at an intersection that many women feel, where the wild pull of sexual desire meets the routine obligations of bodily discipline: make-up, exercise, “shaving in all the right places”. There’s an exercise ball on stage, and the two women slowly strip down from their hazmat suits to matching, bone-coloured undergarments. They look alluring up there, their bodies held in check by synthetic fibres, wearing cheap wigs, daubing in each other in fake blood: alluring and strange.

Meanwhile, the musician sitting to the side of stage uses an array of pedals and a Korg synthesiser to render the studio arrangements of Apocalypse, girl – which involved harp and cello, among other instruments – as simple, fluid settings for Hval’s performance. Hval uses her voice imaginatively, at some moments tumbling through her words, half-singing and half-speaking, and, at other moments, swooping up to high and agitated notes. “So much death!” she wails, during a song called ‘Heaven’, her voice momentarily filling the venue.

A handful of people leave, unnerved or unimpressed or both. Hval is an unusual proposition anywhere, but here on a festival program with broadly popular appeal, at a venue situated in the midst of a mock “village” rife with commercial sponsorship, her blend of fake and sincere, kitsch and avant-garde, provocation and enjoyment, feels vividly out of place. But the majority of audience members stay in their seats, and the mood gradually turns from bafflement to appreciation.

Hval ends her one-hour set with ‘Holy Land’, the long closing track to Apocalypse, girl. By this point she and her dancer are lying down, intertwined with each other, wrapped in toilet paper. The song is a slow reverie of strings and synthesiser, rendered here as a mass of vocal loops. Hval hits the exercise ball with her microphone, producing a quiet rhythm like a heartbeat. It’s an unassuming but appropriate end to a performance that has ranged from funny to startling to harsh to beautiful; by no means a standard gig, and all the better for it.

Anwen Crawford

Anwen Crawford is The Monthly’s music critic.

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