The downbeat: Sick of hearing about love? Jenny Hval’s latest album offers a new spin on an old cliché

Norwegian singer-songwriter Jenny Hval wearing a gray flannel while surrounded by pink hearts.
Graphic by Eloise Magoncelli

The topic of love in music is so common it seems almost impossible to avoid. From “Can’t Help Falling In Love” by Elvis Presley to “All of Me” by John Legend to “Thinkin Bout You” by Frank Ocean, musicians create work decade after decade about the people who captivate their hearts and minds. 

There are sad love songs (think “Someone Like You” by Adele) and sexy love songs (think “I’ll Make Love to You” by Boyz II Men), but all these songs have one thing in common: They center around romantic love. 

Love is a “strong affection for another arising out of kinship or personal ties,” according to Merriam-Webster. The example the dictionary gives is the “maternal love for a child.” Needless to say, there are many types of love in this world, not solely limited to the romantic variety.

Norwegian singer Jenny Hval has taken this to heart with her latest album, “The Practice of Love.” 

Inspired by a 1985 drama of the same title, the album is experimental without being out of touch. Self-described on her bandcamp page as “compellingly humane,” the eight-track album has a matching tarot card for each song. Tarot cards are just one of Hval’s many interests and reflect the idea that there may be more to this world than what we physically experience in our day-to-day lives. 

Hval’s sound is as unique as the rest of the album’s features: 90s-sounding synths back her varied vocals, and the lyrics are often whispered, more like a secret than a traditional song.

Perhaps the most unique aspect of “The Practice of Love” is the subject matter. Ego death, physical death, metaphysics, spirits, visual art and, of course, love are all explored through the album.

The song titled “The Practice of Love” begins with musicians Vivian Wang and Lasse Marhaug reading from their own, original writings, and the song feels almost like spoken word. The artists discuss their relationship with the idea of love, saying “I hate ‘love’ in my own language. It contains the entire word ‘honesty’ inside it, which makes it sound religious … purified.” 

Later in the song, one of them reads a confession: “Maybe ‘sorry’ is the closest I ever got to expressing love.” 

The questioning of what love is as opposed to expressing personal feelings distinguishes Hval’s music from traditional love songs about unrequited feelings or boundless lust. Hval manages to question, and prompt deeper thinking about, love itself. 

Although “The Practice of Love” may appeal less to hip-hop heads looking for a catchy beat or rock ‘n’ roll fanatics looking for music to dance to, Hval sets the bar higher for topics available to musicians. If music is a tool for communication, why not address serious issues, at least sometimes?

Another song from the album, titled “Ashes to Ashes,” deals with dreaming, death and abstract concepts, only it touches on these issues emotionally, once again displaying the idea that love doesn’t have to be about a person at all. The song begins with Hval singing, “She had this dream about a song / She was certain that it was about a burial / The ritual beautifully written / Even the groove was filled with sadness.” 

Later, the song talks about the beauty in the unknown: “dream[ing] of fucking before I knew how” and not knowing the lyrics to a certain song. Perhaps this song is truly experimental, nothing more than an abstract thought train from Hval. 

But maybe this is a song about gratitude, about seeing the beauty in everyday things, the beauty in dirt and sex dreams. Love can also be defined as “warm attachment, enthusiasm or devotion.” If Hval can make a compelling case about her attachment to a sad song, I would say there is love for that song. Or dreaming. Or dirt.

Love is all around us. 

Hval reminds us that love does not always need to be an extravagant, ring-on-the-finger, mind-blowing, orgasmic, romantic experience. Love can be mundane, and still be beautiful and just as worthwhile. 

Ella Boyd SC ’21 is one of TSL’s music columnists. Besides writing, she enjoys listening to (and mixing) music, writing poetry and making art. 

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