Jenny Hval & Susanna
Meshes of Voice
The title of Meshes of Voice, the collaborative album between Norwegian singers Jenny Hval and Susanna Wallumrød, makes the record seem as if it’s going to be a rather dry experiment in a capella music. The record is, in fact, a continuation of what both singers have been working on separately, and together at a live performance in 2009. The voices of the title are Hval’s high-pitched, almost childish, wandering vocals, and the deeper, more controlled intonations of Susanna that sometimes bear an uncanny resemblance to Björk. Together they make music that toys with structure and texture, all centred on the unique synergy of the two divergent voices and an abstract lyrical narrative containing themes of nature, birth, death, and a very feminine kind of sexuality.
Last year, Jenny Hval’s second full-length record, Innocence is Kinky was one of the most frustrating records I heard that year. Hval created moments of undeniable greatness, but the slippery, sly nature of Hval’s surrealistic lyrics was severely undercut by the dryness of the production (by PJ Harvey collaborator John Parish). Here, the input of Susanna, whose work tends toward the more traditionally beautiful, sees both voices surrounded by luscious grand pianos, gently plucked zither and autoharp, electric harmonium and double bass. The sound of the album is varied and complex, though. The beautiful folk reverie “O Sun, O Medusa” emerges from the electrifying static and massed voices of “I Have Walked This Body,” before melting into the finger-picked acoustic guitar and otherworldly harmonies of “A Mirror in My Mouth” which blends seamlessly into the barely-there drone dirge “Thirst That Resembles Me.”
Meshes of Voice is a brave record. It is hard to place it in a specific genre, given its incredible melding of classical forms (with the interplay between the two voices sometimes resembling a madrigal) with contemporary musical innovations like noise and drone. What brings the record together is its bizarre, impressionistic narrative. At many points, lyrics are reprised, but recast as completely different songs. The swaying, endlessly transforming “Black Lake,” following the intro “Droplet,” also reappears at end of the record, transformed into a delicate ballad reminiscent of the icy landscapes of Kate Bush’s 2011 album 50 Words for Snow. The frighteningly intense “I Have Walked This Body,” is reconfigured into the music-box miniature “A Sudden Swing,” which features some of the loveliest vocals on the album. Elsewhere, recurring imagery of dripping milk and a glaze of honeydew create a tactile sense of the natural that is one of the most engrossing aspects of the record.
It is to Hval and Susanna’s credit that the record is never jarring. Though the same track can morph from something delicate and lovely, through to a wall of unruly noise, then back again, as the mini-suite “I Have a Darkness,” does, there is never a moment that feels forced or out-of-place. The whole record flows seamlessly together, create a real sense of a consistent, flowing narrative, even if the lyrics themselves are too abstract to truly give much away. One of the record’s most arresting moments comes with the plinking piano and exploratory Jenny Hval vocals of “Medusa.” “I am the heir of breasts and fire / A thousand apples dream my dreams,” she sings, with Susanna’s ghostly voice floating in the background. The lyrics are inscrutable, but their imagery is palpable. Paired with neat production tricks, such as the unison intake of breath that dissolves into a gaseous plume later in the same song, this interplay of words and music is endlessly fascinating.
Meshes of Voice is a remarkable achievement. The way Hval’s more outlandish tendencies are anchored by Susanna’s sense of definition and space, as well as the way Hval introduces a sense of danger to Susanna’s regal presence, makes it a record unlike any other. Despite its inscrutability, it’s hard not to read it as a statement, and a profound one at that. From the cover’s striking artwork by Arne Bendik Sjur, through the landscapes and bodies explored in the lyrics, to the boldness of the two women’s creative powers, Meshes of Voice is an absolute triumph. It is not the easiest music to love on a gut level, but it feels like a voyage through an unknown land every time it is played, and that is a priceless experience.