The Practice of Love blurs edges and boundaries.
Jenny Hval’s seventh album, The Practice of Love, details biological processes, cultural significances and emotional states in a series of confidently constructed and artfully delicate songs and spoken pieces. Hval’s compositions weave around the lyrics, which remain the central mysteries of her songs. In effect, the music often reminds of the kinds of post-millennium Euro-house of bands like the Beloved and offers a sort of aural timelessness. The songs deliberately linger at the edge of memory, something Hval suggests when she tells us “… if a song can communicate with the spirits or awaken the dead/ I mean, isn’t that what it is for?” and following this up, in “Six Red Cannas,” with a litany of dates. This album is certainly easier to listen to than 2016’s Blood Bitch, in which Hval’s delicate voice more explicitly explored bodies and their processes, but it is no less demanding in comprehensively productive ways.
In “Lions,” featuring Vivian Wang, a flutter of percussion ushers in synth bass arpeggios while Hval summons the microscopic attention of David Byrne in pondering existential questions and questioning the nature of God. Over Wang’s sombre narration, Hval’s vocals are often lost in the waves of reverb that give the song an oddly oceanic feel as it comes to a squelchy and satisfying close, the skittering drum patterns leaving a trace of themselves in the pause before the next song.
The video for “Accident,” directed by Zia Anger, features Anger’s mother, Barbara, in a deeply affecting mime of the song’s intentions, adding another layer to its already compressed meanings. Hval sings of aging, childlessness and losing the “mystery of life,” while synth string arpeggios cycle over a slowly emerging drum beat, led by a hushed snare that ushers in the simple single note pulses of the song’s bassline. Motherhood is examined here: “To her friend she finds herself saying/ I wonder how I have managed to avoid conceiving, you know, by accident/ So many years. So little fruit.” And Hval ponders how the enormously significant and the banal eventually seem to become the same thing.
“The Practice of Love,” again featuring Vivian Wang who is joined by Laura Jean Englert, offers a more straightforward exploration of the experience of love with the song—although perhaps “spoken word piece” is closer to describing it—suggesting Vanessa Dao’s Zipless, where the words of Erica Jong mix over similar musical motifs. Here, though, the experience is fractured, Wang’s narrative succumbing to the parallel discussion between Hval and Englert, the two streams of discourse mixing briefly before the first gives way to the second. Wang’s prose poem about love is eventually smothered by Hval and Englert’s conversation about the growing realization that childless women can often feel less important to the story of humanity than those who “spread the virus of life.” Dreamlike synth chords string the background together before the piece ends abruptly.
Much like the songs themselves, the overall effect of The Practice of Love blurs edges and boundaries. The body, as a subject, is less immediately visible here than it has been on Hval’s previous works, and the problematic fecundity of her novel Paradise Rot is similarly hinted at but not explored explicitly. More obviously, motherhood—creating both beings and art—is foregrounded, troubled and picked at across the course of The Practice of Love. Meaningful intimacies are hinted at until, finally and in lieu of some grand unifying statement about art and love, Hval reminds us that “We don’t always get to choose/ When we’re close/ And when we’re not.”