Jehnny Beth – To Love Is To Live (20L07)
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Ex-Savage Jehnny Beth pushes all the boundaries with her debut solo album. It is an intense, dramatic and highly charged soundscape. Gordon Rutherford places his whip in his valise and gets down to it for Louder Than War.
When Savages burst onto the scene seven years ago with their debut, Silence Yourself, it was as though time stopped still. This was ferocious, all sheer burning adrenaline and frenzied energy. It was a quite magnificent introduction. To follow it up three years later with one of the albums of the decade in Adore Life was nothing short of astonishing. Show me an album of the last decade with more authenticity or more urgency. Show me a modern album that channels the true spirit of punk more than Adore Life. I’ll wait.
Since then we have all waited. So patiently. Waiting for Savages III.
Before we progress any further, I need to advise that To Love Is To Live is not Savages III. However, the good news is that the band’s vocalist, Jehnny Beth, has delivered an album that surpasses anything previously released under the Savages banner. Let there be no doubt that this is a mature, bold and ambitious collection which documents a significant leap forward.
To fully understand To Love Is To Live it is useful to look ahead, specifically, to 9th July 2020. That is when Beth’s collection of erotic short stories, Crimes Against Love Memories is published. From what I understand, this collection of twelve stories will be accompanied by a series of photographs taken by her partner (and primary collaborator on this album) Johnny Hostile. Think the work of Helmut Newton and you’re getting somewhere.
To Love Is To Live is that book manifest in musical form. Musically, nothing is sacred. Anything is possible. There are no rules in this dark and complex soundscape that washes all over you. Gone (for the most part) are the rabid, buzzsaw guitars, replaced with atmospheric, sweeping synths and understated piano. It would be the perfect soundtrack to a remake of Liliana Cavani’s The Night Porter.
This subject matter is exposed even more starkly when we analyse the lyrics. So much seems to be about sex and sin. Oh, the eternal conflict. How can it be so good but also so bad? We have all of that self-confessed Catholic guilt oozing out of every line. Beth openly bemoans this on Innocence, where she states “And there’s the guilt of course/’cause I was raised catholic/and it teach you it’s bad form to think”. This apparent obsession with such issues compounds the vestige of drama. Yet, the phrasing doesn’t carry the weight of someone who feels that they are sinning. Instead, Beth sounds assertive and super confident, with no sense of doubt whatsoever.
Then we have Flower, where we have reassurance that, despite the musical transformation, Beth’s voice continues to evoke strong images of Siouxsie, whilst retaining its own unique and striking quality. Here, she openly discusses her bisexuality and pent up frustrations as she tells us that “She loves me and I love her/I’m not sure how to please her”.
By way of comfort to all the punk diehards out there, I can confirm that Beth hasn’t entirely abandoned her punk sensibility on To Love Is To Live. There are moments when that spirit returns with a vengeance. Take the visceral I’m the Man, for example. It is the most Savages-esque track on the album, with razor sharp guitars and Beth spitting lines of sheer naked brutality, such as “I’m a man/there’s no bitch in town/who doesn’t understand/how hard my dick can be”.
The delivery is designed to shock. And it does. But the most stunning aspect is nothing to do with the song itself. No, it’s the transition between the sheer unadulterated aggression of I’m the Man into the breathtaking beauty of the track that follows.
It feels as though we have stepped through a portal into a different universe. In complete contrast to the previous two and a half minutes, The Rooms begins with a delicate jazz-tinged intro, led by Jorja Chalmers’ moody saxophone evoking visions of a smoky Blue Note album cover. This segues seamlessly into Beth’s most perfect vocal performance, perfectly accompanied by her sparse piano lines. At this moment, you are struck by just how accomplished a songwriter and musician Beth is and her evolution from Savages vocalist to what we have here starts to make more sense.
As a writer of fiction, it should be no surprise that Beth is aware of how to craft a narrative. As such, there is a wonderful arc in the storytelling within the album. It is one that explores the very nature of what it means to be human and begins on I Am, with Beth’s treated, robotic voice advising us that “I am naked all the time/I am burning inside”. This precedes the most wonderful cinematic piano chords elegantly entering the fray. It sounds like the most perfect Bond theme ever.
At the very end of the album, when it all concludes roughly thirty-eight minutes later on the hypnotic closer Human, the otherworldly voice returns, reaffirming what we were told in the opening two lines. It may sound unordered and even discordant in parts, but ultimately it all comes full circle in an impeccable symmetry. There is something beautifully perfect about that.
To Love Is To Live is an intense and claustrophobic experience. It is full of twists and turns, all darkly themed, and there are moments when it feels like the walls are closing in on you. But then, just when you least expect it, you are suddenly projected into a bright wide-open space. This is best evidenced by yet another spectacular transition between the frantic electro-punk of How Could You and the sublime and dreamy French Countryside.
There’s another thing to love about this album. It’s short and straight to the point. As mentioned previously it is a mere thirty-eight minutes long (or short). Beth gets up, gets the message across and gets the hell out of there. No messing, no filler. I like that. Too many artists today seem to think that they can compromise on quality through quantity. You can’t. Better to have thirty-eight minutes of brilliance than an hour and five of mediocrity.
In conclusion, To Love Is To Live is a brave and daring album. It would have been considerably safer for Jehnny Beth to hang about in her former band and release Savages III. Instead, she has rolled the dice and come up with a double six. It’s a gamble that has paid off in spades.
So, it’s not Savages III. But nor should it be. Artists should evolve. They should take risks and experiment and push the boundaries. They should grow and flourish and develop. That’s precisely what Jehnny Beth has done and we should be grateful for it.
All words by Gordon Rutherford. More writing by Gordon can be found at his archive.