How long does it take for Jenny Hval's third album, Viscera, to assert its bold and highly personalized vision? No longer than the first line in the first song, specifically “I arrived in town with an electric toothbrush pressed against my clitoris” from “Engines In The City.” That's merely the first arresting moment of many on the fifty-four-minute collection from the Norwegian singer, whose previous albums, 2006's To Sing You Apple Trees and 2008's Medea were issued under the moniker Rockettothesky (she also pairs with Susanna Wallumrød in the duo Meshes Of Voice). Given the opening lyric, it probably doesn't surprise that much of Viscera centers on body-related issues, but the gesture never feels like some transparent attempt at provocation so much as an honest and natural exercise in self-examination on Hval's part.
The album's a free-whelling affair that goes down numerous stylistic paths. The spoken intro to “Blood Flight” might initially remind one of Laurie Anderson, but Hval quickly goes her own way in the haunting vocal climaxes and macabre folk chant that follows. “Portrait of the Young Girl as an Artist” gradually reveals itself to be a defiant post-punk exercise, with Hval's impassioned voice keening alongside a thrashing mix of guitars and drums. “How Gentle,” by comparison, is delicate in the extreme, with her multi-tracked voice floating alongside a spectral mix of violin and acoustic guitar, and the song (like the also lovely “A Silver Fox” and drone meditation “This is a Thirst”) proving that, as always, a song's hypnotic impact can be achieved through means other than volume. The song that lodges itself perhaps most strongly in memory is “Golden Locks,” which boasts a thoroughly haunting melodic progression, and the beauty of the song itself is strengthened by her mournful quiver. Elevated by stirring vocal lines, the closing “Black Morning / Viscera” comes a close second. Holding together the album's divergent threads are Hval's thematic focus and powerful vocal presence.
Her voice is ably supported by a rich bed of sound, with some of it produced by her own guitar, organ, and zither playing and some provided by a mini-army of guests who contribute drums, electric and acoustic guitars, psaltery, and synthesizer to the album. Instrumentally, the album is distinguished by the fact that the arrangements are conceived to organically fit the songs and their lyrical content. Yes, there are moments when PJ Harvey and Kate Bush come to mind, but Hval's revealing Viscera shows her to be ultimately an artist beholden to no one but herself.