Jehnny Beth - TO LOVE IS TO LIVE Music Album Reviews

With livewire intensity, the Savages singer-songwriter’s ambitious and experimental solo album explodes with life from every corner as an epic display of contrasting themes and emotion. 

Jehnny Beth didn’t set out to write love songs. In 2011, as the French singer born Camille Berthomie began to write a debut album with her new punk band, Savages, she swore off the subject, finding topics like identity and censorship more fruitful. But when it came time for Savages’ second record, a switch had flipped. Overwhelmed by the generosity and warmth radiating from her audience, Beth wanted to bounce some of it back. That impulse yielded 2016’s Adore Life, an album whose slash-and-burn guitar work lit up the tenderness of its lyrics.

TO LOVE IS TO LIVE, Beth’s new solo album—written and produced with Savages producer (and Beth’s longtime partner) Johnny Hostile—is not a Savages record by another name. Beth sidelines the grimy, distorted guitar and reaches for a more diverse palette, including strobe-like synths, downy woodwinds, and inscrutable snippets of found sound. But there are constants: TO LOVE IS TO LIVE is rife with the same livewire intensity, the same embrace of tensions and apparent contradictions. Lyrically and musically, it vacillates between the corporeal and the ethereal, prudence and excess, softness and severity. Its various parts could fill out the whole character alignment grid from lawful good to chaotic evil. If not always love, they demonstrate fascination with the full spectrum of human experience and beyond.

Presenting herself as an alien (or a sentient robot?), Beth opens the record with a sweeping, spoken-word poem warped by vocal filters. Elsewhere, she’s an all-too-human lover, longing for closeness. On “I’m the Man,” she’s an aggressor, spitting the titular phrase more than 30 times through an audible snarl. She is pious and a miscreant, sometimes at once. Beth appears as a statue on the record’s cover, her powerful stance and icy glare locked in stone; under the surface, though, things are far more fluid.

This has structural implications, too: TO LOVE IS TO LIVE is stuffed with disorienting interludes, codas, and about-faces. On more than one occasion, Beth and her collaborators build up a hardcore frenzy, then swiftly pull out the rug: The seething chaos of “How Could You” abruptly tumbles into ambient birdsong. Instrumental lines are collaged together with skittering synthetics; Beth’s alto is distinctive but mutable, and she flits between acridity and softness. There is some organizing logic across the album, like the reprisal of the opening poem on its final track, signaling the completion of a cycle. But, on the whole, it is indifferent to order.

Rather, urgency emerges as its guiding principle, heard in its dramatic crescendos and emphatic percussion. Beth’s idea for a solo project germinated in 2016, following the death of David Bowie. After revisiting his final album, Blackstar, she was overtaken by an existentialist conviction that man (or woman) is nothing but his or her own making. Beth wanted to create something to cement her own legacy—an undeniably daunting task. “I couldn’t shake the feeling of my mortality, all through doing it,” she recently said, of working on the album. “I felt it was important that I do this before I died.” The sense that the clock is ticking hangs in the air. On opener “I Am,” a timer pulses as if Beth is on deadline to transfer her thoughts onto tape. There’s no room for tidiness under such conditions.

Pondering death raises matters of conscience (particularly for someone like Beth, who is, as she notes on “Innocence,” plagued by Catholic guilt). And so sin—both of the flesh and of society at large—emerges as a motif. Near the midway point, Beth enlists actor Cillian Murphy to bemoan the cruelties of war and capitalism in a piercing reading of her poem “A Place Above.” Beth said that “I’m the Man,” which follows, is not an excoriation of the patriarchy, but an exploration of the destructive tendencies that live within all of us. It’s difficult, though, to write off the song’s blatantly misogynistic language (“There’s no bitch in town/Who doesn’t understand/How hard my dick can be”) entirely; in this self-interrogation, Beth takes toxic masculinity as a given, a baseline against which she can measure her own inner demons.

But Beth’s lyrics are often more evocative than they are precisely descriptive or narrative. And for all her fixation on virtue and sin, she’s not out to moralize, exactly, but rather to capture all the messiness, contradiction, and even ugliness of life. This is true even of album closer “Human,” on which she refutes her humanity altogether and surrenders her body to the cloud: “I used to be a human being/Now I live in the web.” Scientists say that whole brain emulation—actually uploading our minds—is still a distant prospect, for reasons both technological and ethical. Until then, we’re left with more analog methods of cataloging our lives and shoring up our legacies. As any artist knows, this is an imperfect, imprecise project—but that’s the beauty of it.
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Jehnny Beth - TO LOVE IS TO LIVE Music Album Reviews Jehnny Beth - TO LOVE IS TO LIVE Music Album Reviews Reviewed by Wanni Arachchige Udara Madusanka Perera on Tuesday, June 23, 2020 Rating:

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