Jenny Hval - Manchester Gulliver's
Onstage: three women, two men. To the right of the stage and to the rear, video screens. A full house chats, drinks and pays scant attention as Jenny Hval and... some people mill about, fiddling with leads, poking at electronica, checking their phones, guzzling beer. Accustomed as we are to the awkwardness of intimacy (Gulliver's is a popular fixture within the Manchester live scene but it has no backstage area), we spare the artist the indignity of prepping for performance right under our noses and we get on with the bit before the gig. Only, tonight, there is no before. As Hval suddenly stands stock still, stares into the rear of the room and begins to pick through 'Kingsize', the spoken word opening of the her fifth album Apocalypse, Girl, a deluge of body politic rhetoric, words world-weary but spiked with a keen eye, we come to with a jolt. Unsettled ("Oh – has she started?"), Manchester spends the rest of the show playing catch up.
'Show'. But not. Disorienting is one thing; being presented with the mightiest head fuck dismantling of the live form since a group of grumpy millionaire posh lads decided they hated their audience so much they'd build a wall between them, well that's something else entirely. Much of the positive reaction to Apocalypse, Girl (the comma's vital, right?) has focused on its unflinching reworking of feminist iconography. Hval's lyrics harness a violent, electric energy: they're playful and steely in equal measure, and their sexual frankness feels less like placard-waving and more like a joyous reclamation of self.
It's the Plath-referencing 'Kingsize' that has had most critics frothing, how it speaks of "the huge capitalist clit". But there's a deeper, more storied aspect to Hval's sketchy dreamscapes: "In New York I don't dream…I see no subculture…" "I see no big science," she laments, and brings to mind Laurie Anderson, a Big Apple artist who also dared to morph and brutalise her chosen form (Apocalypse Girl feels like a stark remove from its predecessor, the more easily digested Innocence is Kinky ) for fear she might come to an artistic standstill. And Hval, as tonight makes abundantly clear, can’t – daren't – stop moving.
Hence the thrift store wig that sits atop her peroxide crop: long, pink flowing tresses that obscure her face. The oddball set-up that sees her two musicians plonked stage right and left, hunkered over keyboards and equipment, twisting knobs, frowning artfully in that way that is an absolute job spec requirement for twisting the knobs of complicated-looking electronic machinery in live performance. Faceless and servile, they don’t exchange a glance, don’t look up all night. And her two female attendants, (the film-maker Zia Anger and the conceptual artist Annie Bielski) who both wear blonde wigs; they paw at their charge like woozy ladies-in-waiting, stroking her hair and following her around the stage like hungry cats. They'll sit out a song, stare at the floor, watch the video screens (grainy footage of mechanised cake manufacture; a woman who slowly drips a viscous, greeny-yellow liquid from her mouth - an erotic horror show almost impossible to rationalise), chat to each other while sat stage front. The form and expectations up-ended, you almost fear for what might come next.
During 'Drive', those fears subside when Hval's voice and the sheen of the beats and the clean wash of the synths offer a thrilling moment of clarity. That voice, given the space, rings out, all uplift and joy. But then the rear screen brings up the lyrics to Toni Braxton's 'Unbreak My Heart' and Hval steps aside as Anger commits karaoke homicide, strangling this awful, unforgivable touchstone for the over-cooked heart-on-sleeve hyper-balladry of the 90s, in a way it probably had coming. It's funny, sure. It's not that funny, in all fairness (and half the crowd laughs a little too much), but it's downplayed just enough to swerve 'look at me!' cleverness.
When, during the closing 'This Battle Is Over', Hval slowly, tenderly removes her wig, you've seen it coming for an hour but it still feels like the grandest, sucker punch piece of melodrama. Surrender the pink. Yeah, right. Here's a song that extends an ocean beyond the constraints of blank treatise, gobby hectoring and sly take-down. Hval's world view is increasingly vast and she's a daring but open-hearted poet. "A million bedrooms with hands softly lulling our divine cocks and cunts, without telling anyone / A million ships come alone out on the calmest seas": for once, quoting lyrics feels like public service rather than mere indulgence. You don’t quite believe her of course when she offers that "feminism's over and socialism's over" but you sign up without a thought to her large scale drama when she sings "this is what happens on the edge of history." A bruising experience, Jenny Hval sets about re-animating the stiff, clammy cadaver of live performance with a breath-taking disregard. Throughout, nobody moves. Nobody breathes. Nobody gets hurt. Well, maybe just a little bit.