For French songwriter Jehnny Beth, a step away from her role fronting London-based noise rockers Savages is an opportunity to plumb the depths of her most honest self. Without losing the provocative, literary or raucous dimensions of her primary project, the singer has emerged on her first solo album, To Love Is to Live, as a singular creative force, exploring the finer contours of her own being in order to challenge and subvert preconceived notions of politics, sex, gender, romance and the personalities we wrap ourselves in for protection. It’s a moody, thrilling work — the result of Beth’s wholehearted indulgence of her human impulses.
Beth, born Camille Berthomier, is depicted on the cover of her record as a nude marble statue — pure and exposed, yet posed in an unambiguously confrontational stance that channels the pervading attitude of the work contained within. On opening track “I Am,” her pitch-shifted vocals proclaim “I am naked all the time […] I am a voice no one can hear,” belying a vulnerability and honesty perhaps unexpressed in Beth’s work until now. But there’s a confidence to these statements, reinforced by the cinematic foreboding of the swirling orchestral tones and electronics that build underneath, and further bolstered when Beth’s unaltered, wavering voice emerges to repeat the opening verse with a haunting but hopeful lightness.
Confidence shot through with complexity is very much Beth’s agenda throughout To Love Is to Live. It’s in the pounding restlessness of “Innocence,” which gives way to a spacey chorus that laments how city living has robbed the singer of her human warmth. Early highlights like “Flower” and “We Will Sin Together” wrestle with the knottiness of sexual desire and burgeoning love — the former’s mournful vocal and acoustic guitars ache with thwarted longing, while the rhythmic, rising mellotron of the latter underpins lyrics that explore the intermingled liberation and submission that comes with surrendering to one’s urges. Use of a sapphic choral ensemble allows the culminating moments of “We Will Sin Together” to aim heavenward in an honest manifestation of Beth’s bisexuality and the nuance therein.
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A gloomy, industrial sound defines the majority of To Love Is to Live’s track list — an aesthetic graciously indebted to the likes of Nick Cave or PJ Harvey — and such a template evokes the focused subversiveness of what preoccupies Beth through. Intent on transgressing boundaries, she turns to men and masculinity at the album’s heart. Irish actor Cillian Murphy guests on spoken word interlude “A Place Above,” lending his trademark stoicism and lethargy to a rumination on power, violence and war. With “I’m the Man,” Beth revives the frantic, noisy energy of Savages in a relentless punk cacophony. Obliterating the gender binary, she growls the song’s title again and again, assuming the masculine role of the one who fucks, pisses and causes pain — the one to be feared, hated and admired. Briefly, though, the aggression falls away into a quietude that exposes the vulnerability behind the machismo before the guitar-and-drum-driven walls are thrown back up.
Throughout To Love Is to Live, Beth deftly navigates the multiplicity of what makes her herself. “I’m the Man” is balanced out by its twin “Heroine” — a number pushed onward by skittering drums and threatening to burst at the seams. Beth sings as if in rapture, a stark contrast to the low tones that characterise her vocal throughout the record, as she exalts “all I need is to be a heroine.” Here, she comes face-to-face with the constructs of femininity and female identity, laying bare her own struggles to find strength in those recesses and her longing to do so. The visceral “How Could You” drives forward on a manic energy, its propulsive modular synths and hardcore stylings driving a repetitive, uninhibited hook. The anger that Beth navigates more reservedly in the album’s more refined moments explodes forth unrestricted with the help of a snarling backup vocal from Joe Talbot, frontman of Bristol punk band Idles.
While these infrequent outbursts are effectively cathartic and well-positioned at intervals across the 39-minute runtime, it is indeed in those more austere, steadier moments that Beth’s talents are at their most prominent. On “The Rooms,” she uses potent imagery and clear narrative direction to articulate a keen interrogation of gender imbalance, while “French Countryside” is a sweeping piano-led ballad in which Beth pores over a laundry list of her regrets and faults to rediscover herself in the present. The latter, the album’s penultimate track, was co-written with Beth’s close friend Romy Madley Croft, singer of indie-electronic outfit The XX, and Croft’s touch is clear in the considered melancholy that keeps the track on an even keel of both self-flagellation and self-affirmation.
Closing track “Human” brings To Love Is to Live full circle. It’s a menacing piece — lengthier, darker and at times heavier than much of what precedes it. The song progresses in movements, shifting between the various modes Beth has explored throughout, while reprising the lyrics of opening track “I Am.” But the closing moments of “Human” are in fact less languid than the opening bars of its bookend — instead, there’s a sense of liberation and transcendence in the fluidity with which Beth moves between sounds while retaining a centred sense of her artistic voice. If To Love Is to Live might be seen as an exploration — an uncertain journey into the depths of what comprises and concerns the musician — then “Human” is its concluding act of self-actualisation. Unafraid of what makes her difficult, idiosyncratic or complex, Jehnny Beth ties a bow on this project with an impressive clarity that serves to reinforce her already-established and considerable talents while boldly traversing new, untested, innately personal ground with aplomb.
Rhys Handley (@RhysHandley2113) is a journalist and film writer from Yorkshire in England. Now based in London, he is the biggest Talking Heads fan who still hasn’t seen Stop Making Sense.