Jenny Hval The Cobalt, Vancouver BC, August 28
Published Aug 29, 2015Following the dreamy downtempo pop of Jagjaguwar's Briana Marela, whose sound is somewhere between Fake Tears and the Casket Girls, Norway's Jenny Hval was a sight to behold in a pink and blonde wig and beige jogging suit. She was partnered only by a dude who tweaked her vocals, Korg MS-20, effects, and drum sequences, and an exercise ball similar to that which graced the cover of Apocalypse, girl, her 2015 album and Sacred Bones Records debut. Hval bounced on the ball, what she would later call her only friend, as she gave her provocative soft dick rock monologue, "Kingsize."
There was a wash of unwanted feedback permeating through her sound for the first five minutes or so, which Hval said was "like being in space, except not quite." Unfortunately for the flow of the set, there was a wave-like static being played as part of the intro to "Heaven," so it took the sound guy a little while to figure out what was happening, and Hval's synth player had to momentarily turn everything off in the meantime.
As Hval waited for her monitor to be turned off, she mused about how she was all alone during a show, and when you're all alone during a show, you've gotta just keep playing. This moment was the first inkling about the kind of performer she would prove to be, one who committed to the various absurdities of a live art-pop show while maintaining a sense of self-deprecating humour and contextual awareness.
Before "Why This?," as she waited for synth guy to sort out his patches, Hval sat on the ball with her iPhone pressed to the mic, playing a horribly compressed version of "Summertime Sadness" by Lana Del Rey while she mouthed the words and pretended to flick through Tinder. Later, she admitted that she had never actually used Tinder before, so she hoped she was flicking in the right direction, and pondered how funny it would be if she joined the dating app and someone in the crowd connected with her while she was playing. While she has done similar things performance-wise on this tour so far, having hit San Francisco and Portland before Vancouver, little if anything came across staged.
Hval's voice was a tad unsteady at times, specifically early on, which was perhaps part of the reason why she mimed impaling her throat on the mic stand. She had it more or less locked down shortly after the sound fix, though, her mirrored tones elegant in "Heaven" and dramatic in "Drive," despite someone whistling in the crowd so much that Hval stopped her screaming, modulated crescendo momentarily to ask, "What?!"
Her show deserved the kind of leeway one might grant to performance art. Its power was drawn not exclusively from ideal sound, but from its eclectic mix of experimental soundscapes, theatrical choices, and evocative poetry drawn from her experience growing up in Norway's equivalent of the Bible Belt, the tension of sexuality and cycle of mortality. And it was quite effective.
After "The Battle Is Over," she crouched at the mic stand as if to pray while the lights went out and the music transformed into a dark, organic drone. Then, she laid on her discarded jogging suit and wig, face down, and sang seemingly disconnected syllables in the ambient texture, her legs crossed, culminating with the last sounds of Hval hitting herself in the chest with the mic. These kinds of shenanigans could easily come off as pretentious in certain hands, yet Hval's awkwardly honest and self-aware stage presence anchored the show on relatable ground.
After it finished, Hval thanked the whole night, from the opening bands to people who just talked among themselves in the darkness, then hung around and chatted to fans onstage and at the merch booth. When she sang, she produced a rather intimidating art-pop intensity, like Yoko Ono or the Eccentronic Research Council, but when she spoke, she brought it all down to earth.