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Making Sense of Sound

“Maybe sorry is the closest I ever got to expressing love.”

Jenny Hval, via Tom Øverlie (Flickr)

Ruminations on love; the ecosystem of a human narrative, and one’s place in it; ‘of corpse’ and other gems; blossoming into awareness. In Jenny Hval’s latest album, the searching for connections, the melancholia and lightness of "they must be drawn to something", I imagine how wonderfully subtle — and yet uncomfortably bare — an acoustic version would sound. But I can’t help it, no matter how in awe I am of the lyrics, how susceptible to the chords and melodies and atmospheres...I can’t get into the sound of the music. It is not my music. And some of the songs I just cannot stand.

How does one cope when they love the lyrics but not the sound? Or vice versa? Following my musician’s instincts, I can’t help but wonder how great some of the songs would be if Hval turned in another direction, took up another instrument—something dreamy, shoegazey, Wolf Alice-y? She’s already in a half-right direction with High Alice. It’s almost like a variation of an 80’s ecstasy scene, only more sensitive, ethereal and observant. I don’t want to impose my own musical tastes on anyone, it’s simply frustrating to find oneself juxtaposed at a place where they usually go to for comfort and unification of the self.

What to do when in such a conundrum? When the music is not enough but the expression is just enough, just enough of too much? Within a musical bubble, one prides themselves on their musical tastes, each album and artist and lyric find their rightful place on one’s public shelf of cocktail conversations and ‘heightened’ small talk. Where does Jenny Hval fit into mine?

That, in turn, reminded me of the Steel Panther’s feral “All that punk shit sucks (...) it belongs on fuckin’ Mars, man. What the hell is punk shit? And Madonna can go to hell as far as I'm concerned, she's a dick.” I’m able to understand one’s antipathy towards punk or pop (or the rather underdeveloped pop punk, for that matter), but that is an exploitation of your own inverted stereotype, man. I tried to give them another chance, but couldn’t sit through the lyrics of “All I Wanna Do is Fuck (Myself Tonight)” (the title says it all), and I surrendered altogether after realizing that the next song is yet another one of those “Let’s Get High Tonight.” Same old same old. Even a high wouldn’t be worth it. How did metal arrive here? Or was it always like this? Just as I need music to give an emotional narrative by way of the lyrics, I also crave a humane and intelligent foundation, a justification of why one does music in the first place. Of this there is a definite lack in the new Steel Panther album.

At the beginning of their paeans towards metal they mention Ozzy, which is interesting, as Ozzy himself seemed utterly clueless about the nature of what he was doing, at last a a certain point. I’m not sure he knew what he was singing about himself—in his autobiography he discloses certain aspects of Black Sabbath’s songwriting process, which makes me feel rather confident to say so— more than that, the band (supposedly) wasn’t even aware of the ‘satanic’ design of their first album, which brings about the question: how did their greatness come about? Let’s face it, good music is rarely enough, and if it was all about the circumstantial and, as it appears, unconscious controversy, then what does it say about the music, the b(r)and? I am a fan of Ozzy’s wails and of Iommi’s flailing riffs, but, as someone who gets their high form what’s beneath, I’m not sure how to look at this, and where to situate them in my bubble or shield or collection or cult, or whatever you want to call it.

How does it work with other art forms, then? As music seems to get its luck from a coin toss, and you can flip it around as you please, writing seems more like the sun-reflection interconnected with the violence of the waves. The form is rooted in content and the content is reinforced by form. They are both so explicitly interweaved, that one cannot acknowledge one without the other. Nonetheless, we will obviously always forgive Nabokov for Lolita, simply because it is so damn beautifully written. Moby Dick is, on the other hand, a different story, but its waters run too deep for my simplistic discourse.

All of this doesn’t mean that music cannot be playful, that there’s no room for irony, for calling out. I respect Soundgarden immensely for their satiric “Big Dumb Sex,” which is enjoyable and enticing both in message and in sound (because there’s nothing more pleasurable to hear than Chris Cornell’s screams on copulation over and over again, alongside their usual melodious abandon). Now, I am proud of inviting them to that private bubble of mine, or to even boast around with my public admiration of them (if you spot a blood-red SOUNDGARDEN on a washed-up black jean jacket somewhere on campus, you’ve got me).

So, what did I end up doing with my Hval dilemma? Well, I committed a musical disgrace — I deleted the few songs I simply could not stand and left the album un-whole, un-holy. But, the thing is, to me it was incomplete in the first place, so through my personal reduction reconstruction subtraction, I added more value to it. And now a half of Hval’s spirit is hanging on the edge of the bubble, while another one is roaming in the wind, searching for a listener that is more patient, more complete. But it’s fine, I’ve always got my Big Dumb Grunge to fill me up. Let’s throw in a bit of Sabbath, too.

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