The best albums are the ones that slowly pull you in, as though in a trance. It’s hard not to be mesmerized by albums like that: you sit there, quietly transfixed by that which is wrapping itself around your nerves and synapses. At her best, Bjork is more than capable of this feat, but there are few musicians who really manage it. Scott Walker is one of the small number of men that accomplish this task. These musicians find a way to construct everything to the exact specifications for keeping you glued to your seat, heartily awaiting what’s coming next.
On “Engine in the City,” the first track of Viscera, I sat wondering what I was going to be hearing. And after a few seconds, Hval pops her head in. “I arrived with an electric toothbrush pressed against my clitoris.” As you may know, I’m big on first lines, and as far as first lines go, this is a pretty jarring one. It sets the stage for the strange, sexual tone of Viscera (more on this later). The really unfortunate thing for her is, the way Hval chose to express that tone is, at times, a little off-putting.
I’m going to get the good part out of the way: Jenny Hval has a truly wonderful voice. It’s difficult to really place where it falls in the hierarchy of Women In Music, but if pressed, it would be somewhere between Leslie Feist and Joanna Newsom. That said, her way of articulating is all her own. It’s not unique, it is merely different. But it is different in that it is hypnotic. The way she’s chosen to express herself on Viscera is a gorgeous thing indeed, and if she happens to garner the fame required to “take off,” she’ll likely find a very good home in the spotlight as an immensely talented vocalist.
The bad part is the sexual tones brought up already. Singing about sex can be done in a non-cringeworthy way. It’s even completely possible to sing about it in a way that doesn’t make people bat an eyelash. But the name of the record says it all about it: Viscera. Parked somewhere in between “sex” and “intestines,” you’ll find this word. Clinically, you’ll find this word in your lower abdomen. It’s a gruesome word. And in keeping with that, the lyrics that deal with the subject are done exactly as well as you would expect from a feminist poetry reading. The word “clitoris” comes up more than once: during “Blood Flight,” she sings, “And on the edges of the cunt grew little teeth / The clitoris, that great Sphinx, opened it’s eye / So many blind years, acting Oedipus.” It’s hard to ignore lyrics like this. Later on, on “Golden Locks,” she not-so-coyly discusses her hair slowly turning into piss (I am not kidding) in the night. Just before that, she coos “My heart breaks, and my mouth breaks and opens like a clam” after being told “You need to get laid.” She also sings the phrase “golden showers” several times. I said I’m not joking, right?
Herein lies the problem with Viscera: if you could ignore the lyrics, it would be an extremely engaging album. The songs often feel aimless in length and direction, but given a subject matter more palatable, this would be a good thing, rather than a downside. I feel ridiculous having such a problem with the subject matter here: to say that the album is “minimalist” would be an insult to the word, being an album as close to bare-bones as you can get without falling apart. If you can pull yourself away from how awful some of the songwriting is, you find yourself listening to one of the most beautifully made record of the year.
But that’s not what it’s about, is it? You should be able to overlook clumsy writing (I grew to ignore the lines about semen in Neutral Milk Hotel songs) in the face of beauty, but it’s hard to completely ignore the lyrics altogether. Listening to Viscera, it’s clear that there was a definite intent, and nothing is actually poorly constructed, per se. Make no mistake: this album is striking in beauty. It’s just a little difficult to chew through the gristle to get to the really good parts. That said, I eagerly await another album, which hopefully won’t make me feel like a prude for cringing.