The promise behind practice is that mastery is possible with enough repetition and effort. Habits form one layer above the hard work it took to establish them, until calculated effort becomes reflexive. What are the limits to this strategy of practice and who created the rules of the game? On her seventh studio album, titled “The Practice of Love,” Norwegian singer-songwriter Jenny Hval attacks this question and probes the meaning of that elusive concept underpinning all of human life.
As far as contemporary pop music goes, this record glides to the top of the line. Its psychological and emotional provocations are only rivaled by the masochistic new single from Grimes and the trio of dynamic lead-up tracks for Caroline Polachek’s debut album. Before we practice love, we have to identify what it is; Hval seems hyper-aware that even the most intimate feelings can reflect some larger social meaning. Her female-focused perspective is inspired by the 1985 Austrian film also titled “The Practice of Love,” where a young woman finds power games and systematic obstruction in place of genuine connection. For 33 minutes, the singer injects some much-needed emotional intelligence into the concept of deconstruction.
Dashes and dotted lines sputter to create the pathway for guest feature Vivian Wang’s opening instructions on the first track “Lions.” Momentary beauty is its own effect as she whispers, “Look at these tees/Look at this grass/Look at those clouds/Look at them now/and look at them now.”
With each glance, new details wrap around the brain and overwhelm our awareness of the present. Observation is her vehicle to truth as she urges us to “Study the raindrops on the leaves/Study the ants on the ground/Study the ground, the brown porous topsoil,” in preparation for her question “Where is God?”
The listener is thrown into a kind of hallucination where the natural properties of our world are intensified. Hval’s echoing backup vocals ignite the breakbeat, while Wang’s impressions merge with the universal indifference between nature and religious explanation. It sets the tone by defining sacred space in terms of environmental potential, not its cultural sentiment. In her world, nature is completely amoral, and it sways with a pagan rhythm.
The production flows through an undercurrent of IDM-influenced grooves. It was crafted by Hval, and the brooding instrumentals coagulate into glassy vehicles transporting her ambient prose. On “High Alice,” fluttering claps build anticipation and create a kaleidoscopic effect. The song is a character study loosely based off the protagonist from Lewis Carroll’s world-famous novel “Alice in Wonderland.” Hval connects ideas of genesis to collective will, and Alice’s travels represent an instinct for discovery. She’s jolted by the realization that after centuries of history, there are still important questions we have no answers for. The push-pull relationship between Alice and the creatures around her is a mysterious consequence of nature. The mantra “We all want something better” is the glue between Alice’s story and our own. After repeating the phrase three times, Hval whispers “to get us close,” and it sounds subtle enough to pass as a secret. Her language aims for the collective before trailing off and forcing the listener to finish the thought. She suggests that curiosity has always been, and continues to be, a primary instinct in all living things.
Midway through the record, Hval is joined by Wang and Laura Jean as the trio trade philosophies on the title track. She rejects kjærlighet, the Norwegian word for love, because it also contains ærlighet, which translates to honesty. These are two different ideas compressed into one, and she puts them in contrast by emphasizing their etymology. The confinements of her native language stifle her sense of expression and ability to pull meaning out of words. Saying sorry is dubbed a more accurate expression of love because it pauses the hierarchical power game. Underneath this speech, Jean and Hval discuss identity on a quieted Skype call. Their voices cut across one another until Jean takes over and speaks of childbearing as a tactic of species survival. She provides a unique perspective, and her comments harken back to the record’s main themes.
As the album comes to a close, the danceable track “Six Red Cannas” acts as an energetic send-off. Its sound hints at Chicago footwork before lasers ebb and flow across the beat, like ripples in a lake. This sequence is one of the most charming moments of the entire record. Hval walks the line between dense concepts and nimble production to produce some truly special music. In the blink of an eye, her textured observations turn from natural to spiritual and back again. My favorite example comes on the track “Ashes to Ashes” as she sings, “Swipe with two fingers/Like you were kicking feet underwater, or under the earth/To get up to the surface.”