Popular music’s relationship to Art is complicated, at least as far as the term applies to music which people actually want to listen to. Numerous genres, from Punk to Pop to Thrash, have viewed the term with, at best, suspicion, probably because the categorisation of certain music as ‘art’ is as likely to signify pretention or elitism as a genuine depth of feeling or keenness of expression. After all, not everyone’s Kate Bush. And yet, here is Jenny Hval, unapologetically proclaiming herself an ‘Artist’ first and foremost – check out her website, where she refers to herself as such no fewer than four times in one brief paragraph.
Considering her polymath credentials (‘The Long Sleep’, Hval’s first release since 2016’s critically acclaimed ‘Blood Bitch,’ precedes the publication of her novel ‘Paradise Rot’ by just a few months) the moniker makes sense. This isn’t just semantics, though – on ‘The Long Sleep’ Hval explicitly questions the communicative role of the performer and their relationship to the audience. The four tracks on the EP recycle the same compositional motifs, exploring the variance of mood and effect which can be created by allowing the same melodies and chord progressions to wander into different rooms, change clothes, talk to new people.
Opening track ‘Spells’ thus comes as a bit of a surprise, the initial ambient fug quickly blooming into a straightforward verse and chorus more directly appealing than anything in Hval’s recent back catalogue. Which is probably deliberate, establishing base camp for the EP before the music wanders increasingly far from home. Sounding something like Kim Gordon fronting a jazz-tinged Cocteau Twins, the purity of Hval’s vocals here as they scythe through the billowing, perfumey synths is unabashedly romantic, emotionally bare and just plain lovely.
‘The Dreamer is Everyone in Her Dream’ considers things from an altogether darker perspective. A distant, chiming piano tentatively recalls the transparent chord sequences which punctuate ‘Spells’ but their initial generosity of spirit has been transmuted into something colder, nostalgic, slightly regretful, as Hval whispers urgently ‘Your broken heart is visible from the outside,‘ the audible pops and consonantal clicks of her voice the only thing approaching a rhythm section. Is this a memory? Are we still in the same place as we were? By the time the song is seized by a disorientating spiral of percussive loops the uncomplicated mood of the opening track has well and truly vanished: you can travel a long way in six minutes.
If ‘Spells’ and ‘The Dreamer is Everyone in Her Dream’ respectively present opposing aspects of the same personality, titular third track ‘The Long Sleep’ casts a dispassionate eye over the whole, subsuming the material in a nebulous, oppressive heatwave of static harmony. It’s hard to tell whether the smear of colour is a result of zooming too far out or too far in, but the effect is something like being immersed in a digital cloud, thin strands of melodic material flitting across the periphery like fleeting thoughts intruding on a resting consciousness. More than anywhere else on the EP, here Hval stops guiding the listener through music whose inherent emotional qualities are largely unambiguous and relies instead on the subjective impact of the various resonances stacked and hidden in the fog of its 10 plus minutes duration.
Maybe that’s the point. With three songs that function like three different paintings of the same scene ‘The Long Sleep’ provides plenty of scope for the listener to be autonomous in their response to the meaning of the music. It’s as if Hval is asking, throughout the EP, which of these versions is the most appealing to you? Which the most evocative? How much should a listener depend on an artist taking them by the hand, anyway? In the concluding ‘I Want to Tell You Something,’ as much a brief statement of artistic intent as a piece of music, Hval says ‘There should be something I could do to reach you…There should be something I could say directly without lyrics and melody. Maybe that’s what I’m trying here.’
Ultimately, just how much a listener will get out of ‘The Long Sleep’ is likely to be determined by their tolerance for all things art. I can imagine some people will find the repetition which is a necessary by-product of the presentation of the same material in a variety of ways off-putting. Or will be impatient with a concept whose execution can feel as much like a puzzle waiting to be solved as an exploration of the respective roles of artist and audience in eliciting an emotional response from the music. Me? I love it.