You never get a second chance at a first impression, as the saying goes. Artists need to consider whether to focus on displaying their versatility to appeal to a wider audience or to focus their vision for a more concise and esoteric project. There’s not a more fitting description of Savages vocalist Jehnny Beth‘s debut solo effort, To Love Is to Live, which manages to perfectly embody both elements to produce a complex album that is as stimulating as it is enjoyable.
Jehnny Beth, a French artist, is best known for her post-punk band, as well as for her collaborations with artists like Gorillaz, PJ Harvey and Julian Casablancas. Her connections within and outside of music—with likes of actor Cillian Murphy and “Peaky Blinders” director Anthony Byrne—inform the cinematic quality that permeates the album’s presentation. While seemingly disjointed on the surface with clashing and distorted vocals, heavy synths, industrial noise and solemn piano ballads, there is a method to the madness, much like an abstract painting.
Beth’s tortured lyrics portray a story of someone who struggles with the duality of wanting to share her sexuality and personality and the anxiety of sharing what’s on her mind. Lyrics like “I am naked all the time/ I am burning inside” serve as a sort of thesis for the album, as the line appears on both opener “I Am” and album closer “Human.” Throughout the album there’s a variety of ambient background noise ranging from the chirping of birds in the countryside (on “The French Countryside) to the ticking of a watch as an omen of mortality (again on both the opener and closer), to the chatter of conversations distorted through radio static (on “The Rooms”). The use of such mundane sounds helps to ground the listener into the reality of the album. That tightens the more gripping moments when the album takes on a sudden intensity.
While embodied in the transitions between intense and calm songs like “I’m The Man” and “The Rooms,” and again from “How Could You” to “The French Countryside,” it all gradually culminates with “Human.” On the album closer, Jehnny Beth embraces the dichotomy of more organic sounds and clashes them with abrasive synthetic and industrial noise, making for an impressive conclusion to this highly experimental album. It’s a marvelous feat that she’s able to weave such jarring genres together to create haunting songs, such as on “Innocence,” where she uses filtered, 8-bit-like vocals alongside elements of hardcore punk and house music.
However, what really stands out on this album is its clear cinematic influences, which help it to feel varied while maintaining the scope of its vision. On “We Will Sin Together,” Beth embraces the use of synths to channel the simplistic yet catchy tones one would expect out of a John Carpenter film. “Heroine” opens with snare and hi-hats setting the beat, followed with the use of trumpets that are subdued by a catchy bass riff. It wouldn’t feel out of place in a “James Bond” film.
The use of the cinematic style allows Beth to really play around with different forms and compositions, while maintaining the structural integrity of the story she tells. It’s the internal conflicts that drive Beth to write raw and unfiltered songs that are empowering and mischievous while acknowledging the reclusive side of herself that feels exposed and vulnerable.
On To Love Is to Live, Jehnny Beth leaves no stone unturned. This album is exceptionally crafted when considering the lofty goal at hand. It’s bold with the risks it takes and manages to deliver a project with mass appeal.
Follow editor Tim Hoffman at Twitter.com/hipsterp0tamus.