With Savages ‘on a break’, frontwoman Jehnny Beth returns with her long-awaited debut solo album.
Eclectic, but knitted together with familar lyrical themes and preoccupations, To Love Is To Live sees the arrival of Jehnny Beth the artist – as opposed to the snarling post-punk figurehead.
Sex, lust and sin are to the fore throughout, but countered by a delicate vulnerability and touching snapshots of home and childhood.
Opener I Am sets out her stall right off the bat – a low growl announcing “I am naked all the time”.
It’s a well chosen phrase, as few musicians are as ready to bear their soul with such compelling frankness.
There are orchestral flourishes and horns before a simple piano line complements Jehnny’s vocal.
“You’re safe is my danger,” she intones with typical perversity. It’s a line she’ll return to as the album progesses.
There are a couple of tracks, Heroine and most notably I’m The Man – with its pounding drums, wild guitars and insane keyboards – which do sound a bit like Savages.
But, for the most part, Jehnny wisely steers clear of the formula which brought Mercury Prize nominations for Silence Yourself and Adore Life.
There’s a marked preponderance of keyboards and electronica over screaming distorted guitars, but don’t be fooled into thinking this is easy listening.
How Could You, for example, is about as extreme as it gets.
It starts like a full on glitch fest and then just get weirder as Jehnny and iDLES’ Joe Talbot repeat the title line over and over, before darkly remarking “I am the one who eats”.
Ferocious, frenzied and frightening – it’s an ear drum exploder as unhinged and exciting as anything dreamt up by mavericks like Aphex Twin or Jim Thirlwell.
In The Rooms multi-tracked voices assail the listener, while a jazzy piano backing gives way to breathing, footsteps and a haunting almost bluesy refrain “you don’t tell me how it ends boy, ‘cos I’ve seen it all’.
It’s an album, brimming with ideas, most of which are successful.
Innocence introduces another pervasive theme, rebellion against the repression of Catholic guilt.
To a cacophony of keyboards resembling the sirens of the cityscape she portrays, Jehnny spits ” I was raised Catholic and they think it’s bad form to see man as a piece of shit”.
Then there’s Flower her lustful, but yearning and brittle paean to an L.A. burlesque performer.
She loves me and I love her/I’m not sure how to please her
She loves me and I love her (she loves me)/I’m not sure how to reach her/How to touch her.
Less successful is A Place Above, which features Peaky Blinders’ star Cillian Murphy reading some of Jehnny’s verse.
The poetry is poignant and strikingly prophetic of life under lockdown in the wake of COVID-19, but the track feels unfinished, tacked on, an afterthought.
Much better are the extravagant keyboards of We Will Sin Together and the vicious drums of Human – a nightmarish vision of a soul being seduced and subsumed by cyberspace.
“My dreams are fuelled by snippets of code, I spend hours daily in a panic mode,” Jehnny opines. “My brain is atrophied, my eyes are going blind.”
Perhaps best of all is The French Countryside in which Jehnny is drawn back to thoughts of home.
A nostalgic piano ballad set to minimal production, it could not be further away from her Savages’ persona. Quite beautiful.
Released at a difficult time for all of us, Jehnny and longtime partner and producer Johnny Hostile have crafted a startling and multi-faceted album.
Nakedly personal, it cements her reputation as one of the most creative and intriguing artists of her generation.
Let’s just hope it doesn’t signal the beginning of the end for Savages.
- To Love Is To Live is out now in various formats on this link.
- We Sin Together A short flm to accompany the album is available to view here.
- For more about Jehnny Beth visit her on online on Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook.
- For more on Savages visit their website here.