'To Love Is To Live' Review: Jehnny Beth's debut album bewitches with dark tales and dazzling experimentation
Expertly produced and beautifully yet unapologetically human, the 11 tracks on this frighteningly exquisite album see Beth elevate herself into a league that is entirely her own
The sparkling talents of the electric French performer Jehnny Beth were first unleashed upon the world when she moved to London in 2006 with Johnny Hostile, her boyfriend and creative partner in the critically-acclaimed lo-fi music outfit John & Jehn. Her stardom rose higher after she agreed to front guitarist Gemma Thompson's English rock band Savages, and the all-woman outfit was nominated twice for the prestigious Mercury Prize in a span of just three years. After nearly a decade of nursing and slaying our inner demons with Savages and stirring up plenty of mosh pits and controversies along the way, Beth broke away to musically come into her own and decided to embark on a solo career. Although branching out into uncharted territory as a fledgling solo artist might have made most established stars hesitate, the tough-as-nails Beth relishes the adrenaline and fear of taking on a new challenge.
"I like doing things that are scary," quipped Beth whose recent penchant for boxing persuaded her to make life choices that have unexpected but delightful payoffs. "Once you take a step, in spite of your fear, you realize — this is not how I imagined it would be, but it's exactly how I want it to be." And luckily for Beth, diving into the unknown and creating something new and different was quite the exhilarating experience. Her resulting debut album, 'To Love Is To Live' is bewitching and beguiling, as chockful of artistic flair and enigmatic experimentation as the 35-year-old performer herself.
Releasing on June 12, 'To Love Is To Live' is a collection of Beth's latest works that sees the artist shed her form into something much more boldly visceral and startlingly tender. Wrought by emotional and existential complexity, it's fearless and fearsome, authentic and cinematic all at once. The new 11-track album was produced in collaboration with Atticus Ross, UK-based producer Flood and Beth's long-time collaborative partner, Johnny Hostile.
The album begins with the Atticus Ross-produced 'I Am'. The track starts with a recurring motif of strange, diverse voices which frequently make appearances throughout the album — we first hear a pitch-shifted Beth giving the spotlight to a deep, dark inner voice. Elevated by a surreal, industrial soundscape, the sound then clears as Beth now lends her own unprocessed voice to these inner thoughts. Atticus Ross' time spent producing some of cinema's finest scores really pays off as he meanders from the cold, harsh, electronic opening to the song's gloriously uplifting end, much like Syntax’s ‘Destiny’.
'Innocence' then sees Beth contemplate a loss of innocence and her sense of isolation and inability to connect with the rest of humanity. Beth and producer Flood manage to create a visceral, compelling atmosphere on this brooding number. There are harsh trap beats and discombobulating vocals, which give way to dark jazz refrains that bridge the dualities of viciousness and fragility inhabiting the moodscape of the song.
Despite being openly bisexual through most of her life, Beth admits that her next song on the album, ‘Flower,’ is her first openly gay love song to women. Considering her debut album's release coincides with Pride Month 2020, this song comes as a welcome gift to the LGBTQIA++ community. It was inspired by the entertainers at Jumbo's Clown Room in Los Angeles, a gentlemen's club that Beth really enjoys the vibe of. She composed the song with Hostile and only recorded it on the insistence of the XX's Romy Madley Croft, who really believed in the song's merits. It oozes the raucous sexuality of NIN's early work, perhaps thanks to Ross' influence featuring delicate guitar chimes over an unmistakable carnal beat.
'We Will Sin Together' builds an air of thrilling debauchery and Thelema-lite philosophy. Beth delivers a cinematic powerhouse performance that talks about doing sinful things together and realizing on the way that love is certainly a big part of it. Romy Madley Croft brings her own essence to the song by way of backing vocals and aids Beth in creating a haunting, glistening mood. As listeners, we're happy riding shotgun with her as Beth guides us through these clandestine erotic trysts — "To love is to live / To live is to sin."
'A Place Above' has the iconic actor Cillian Murphy reading one of Beth’s poems as Ross builds a chilling atmosphere for the words. We hear soulful pianos that cave to ominous and overbearing synths. With ‘I’m A Man', Beth embodies the role of her own violence and darkness in this visceral cross-examination of toxic masculine culture that is overtly prevalent in our world today. A heady onslaught of Prodigy-like driving electro infuses the songs with chauvinistic masochism but gives way to a dreamy R&B like segment that betrays a hint of "the man", maybe trysting with their own duality.
Beth then glides tenderly into ‘The Rooms’, a song inspired by Francis Bacon's preferred brand of love in rooms that are hidden away, far from the madding crowd. Creating a scene of a bordello where women pick and choose their own brand of pleasure, 'The Rooms' is a lingering reflection on the recurring theme of eroticism in this album. Examining the nuances of human sexuality seems to be a preoccupation for Beth, as is evidenced by her upcoming collection of erotica, 'Crimes Against Love Manifesto'.
‘Heroine’ is a song that examines the truly frightening nature of freedom and the search for role-models in the face of such fear. But as Hostile suggested to her, she ought to be the heroine that she wrote the song about. Beth believes that when we are hard-pressed to find role-models externally, we would do best to look within and this song is masterfully crafted to do just that. Surging with powerful synth basslines and reassuring saxophones, this is one of the best songs on the album.
Her next song, a complex contemplation on jealousy, has Beth collaborate with IDLES' Joe Talbot. 'How Could You' has a suffocating atmosphere built by the maddening synths and a frenetic mix of instrumentation. Penned by Talbot, 'How Could You' can only be described as a violent lovers' quarrel and Beth feels that his voice fits the "jealous male voice" perfectly. The tender and delicate 'The French Countryside' is Beth’s attempt at writing an unofficial soundtrack to that acclaimed cinematic celebration of gay love, 'Call Me By Your Name'. Written during a particularly turbulent flight that had Beth fearing for her mortality, it has her singing about romantic ecstasy and a bittersweet longing for something that has now past.
With 'Human', Beth examines the frightening world of the internet that many find themselves shackled to. It was inspired by stories of people who have chosen digital rehabilitation in the face of a growing loss of self-identity and genuine connection. Beth and Ross create a vividly haunting picture of modern-day reality before musically circling back to parts of the album opener, 'I Am'. This is easily the most complex song on this mysterious and impregnable album.
After that intense experience, it can be ascertained that Beth's artsy songs aren’t geared for the casual listener. The music and lyrics constantly challenge your attention amid the labyrinthine chaos-and-quiet sections that are often present in the same song, mere bars apart. Expertly produced and beautifully yet unapologetically human, the 11 tracks on this frighteningly exquisite album see Beth elevate herself into a league that is entirely her own. Like all great works of art, 'To Love Is To Live' is full of experimental, multi-layered songs that deal with the darker aspects of human existence. Beth has never shied away from the complexities of chaos and tenderness, and this new album is a stellar showcase of her creative freedom and artistic bravery.