In Review: Jehnny Beth - TO LOVE IS TO LIVE

The ex-Savages singer-songwriter leaves the electric guitar on the stand for a solo album of technical, lyrical and emotional depth.
Posted: 24 June 2020 Words: Miles Ellingham

Reportedly, back in 2016, Savages frontwoman, Camille Berthomier (better known by her stage name, Jehnny Beth), was unsure as to whether venturing a solo album would prove a good idea.  And who could blame her? Savages had built up some serious traction: with two consecutive albums nominated for Mercury Prizes – the latest of which, Adore Lifedescribed ironically by The Guardian’s Alex Petridis as “a group in it for the long haul.” Well, despite Petridis’ advice, Beth’s long-held ambitions for a solo project were teetering on the edge of actualisation. But it wasn’t until David Bowie’s Blackstar came out, followed two days later by his death, that those long-held ambitions finally spilled over.   

Reportedly, Beth stayed up all night listening to Bowie’s musical apotheosis, and, like so many of us, became deeply moved and inspired. The vision of a man as the sum-total of his component parts, transcending even death by virtue of his work, conceptualised Beth’s new album, and indeed, TO LOVE IS TO LIVE, is a thing with deep artistic veracity. 

Upon first listen, you immediately notice the tonal and instrumental shift from earlier Savages work. The ‘barbed-wire’ guitar licks are echoes of themselves; present, but only as tributaries to the mainline vein of effervescent basslines, ghostly jazz samples and synthesisers. There’s a playfulness there too, reminiscent of fellow Parisian avant-garde treasure Lizzy Mercier Descloux, or a mid-career PJ Harvey. The album’s dark in its prevailing approach, but isn’t afraid to break out of the shadowy crevice it so knowingly occupies. ‘Heroine’, for example, a pun on both the drug and Beth’s perceived role in society, spins with all the bass quickness and bounce of newfound delirium – countermanded by the irony of someone shrieking at you the words “all I want is to be the woman you never see!” Furthermore, on other such tracks, even as the darkness and anger builds, it’s broken up, stopped in its tracks by a host of desultory codas and middle-eights, stumbling blindly out of a hurricane and into the eye of birdsong-infused, disorienting calm. 

TO LOVE IS TO LIVE doesn’t hold back from excessive, outward displays of force but neither is it afraid to bare its soul. It’s the see-sawing between these two poles – by no means mutually exclusive – that makes the album so exciting. Second track, ‘Innocence’ leaves the listener feeling shaken and assaulted; the track, with its Grime-esque drum loop, pushes the listener up against the wall and snarls, “I don't ask you anything/ I never talk to you/ So don't ask me anything…”  Meanwhile, later in the album, Cillian Murphy – complete with lilting Douglas cadence – is brought in to read a poem, voicing the album’s soft-spoken discontent as a synth track builds slowly, like a gathering storm, faraway, “Wars come, and money flows/ Everybody loses Including me /Including you/ And I am left with feelings of hatred and violence/ Tell me who am I now?”  

“I think change is scary…” mused Beth in a recent interview, and indeed she’s right; TO LOVE IS TO LIVE is scary too, but in the very best way. Unlike Savages with their rusty post-punk un-restraint, Beth’s solo album knows when to take a step back, how to develop an idea both lyrically and musically. Though it feels chaotic in places, the project proposes an as-yet-undiscovered dream of Nosferatu-chic: unafraid to grit its teeth, unafraid to speak sincerely. 

TO LOVE IS TO LIVE is out now via 20L07 Music. 

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