JEHNNY BETH To Love Is To Live gets 9/10

Jehnny Beth 

To Love is to Live


In Walt Whitman’s poem Song of Myself, there is an iconic and oft-quoted section: “Do I contradict myself?/ Very well then I contradict myself/ (I am large, I contain multitudes.)”. These lines could be the foundation that Jehnny Beth’s debut solo album is built on.

In 38 minutes, her complexities and contradictions are constructed and deconstructed, each track delving deeper and deeper. Beth takes the listener on a journey into her psyche, a place full of sex, love and desire, concerned as it is with ideas both philosophical and psychological. To Love Is To Live is cerebral and visceral: for the gift of this intense dichotomy, Beth demands both the listener’s heart and mind, and we are more than happy to provide. She contains multitudes.

Beth rose to fame as frontwoman of the post-punk band Savages, who for their intense debut album Silence Yourself received a Mercury Prize nomination in 2013. The band last released a record four years ago and Beth admitted to Savages becoming like a prison for creativity – if that is true then this solo record is a necessitated explosion from that suffocation. The palette is wider than the black and white distortion that Savages exclusively wielded. To Love Is To Live spans all manners of stylings, from industrial noise to cinematic scores to haunting ballads. She contains multitudes.

An ardent fan of David Bowie (there are parallels in their complete commitment to individuality), when he passed away in 2016 his death ultimately started Beth on her path to this album. An existential turmoil overcame her, and she decided to try and create her own legacy. Sex and death, therefore, embroils To Love Is To Live, and in its on way is existentially empowering. The record is wholly sexual, fragile and, above all, immensely layered. Beth oscillates between softness and brutality, anxious and intimidating. A ticking clock counts us in – existential dread encapsulated – on the opening song I Am. An eerie spoken word poem unfolds, starting with the lines “I am naked all the time/ I am burning inside/ I am a voice no one can hear/ I am drifting for the years”. As everything dissolves into Beth’s frightened howl, it’s hard to recall a greater and more impactful opening track this year. She contains multitudes.

Born in France to parents of the theatre world and raised and trained in theatricality, a Gallic and dramatic flair burst through on tracks like I Am and a tender paean to her home country is observed on French Countryside. At other moments, there is the vulnerability and anxiety that can only come from living in a city like London (where Beth and her partner Johnny Hostile moved in 2006) as she ponders on Innocence, “Is it living in the city/ That turned my heart so small?/ Is it living in the city/ That turned my heart so cold?”. She contains multitudes.

The album is a reckoning with masculinity. Lead single I’m the Man finds Beth grappling with her anger and resentment towards men while also considering the universality of toxic behaviour. She spits the titular phrase consistently – sometimes her voice sounds like it emanates from a place of fear, mostly it sounds like a snarl of empowerment. On Innocence she considers how her upbringing shaped her attitude: “And it’s the guilt of course/ ‘Cause I was raised Catholic/ And they teach you it’s bad form to think/ Man is a piece of shit”. Elsewhere, she explores her feminine side, with songs like Flower and We Will Sin Together (“All I want is your sexy eyes/ Your legs parting to the skies/ We will sin together”) positively vibrating with sexual want and lust. She contains multitudes.

After listening to the album, its cover is striking: Beth statuesque, naked, fearsome, facing an unknown entity; the contrast with the intense and layered outpouring of emotions and ideas that tumble out of To Love Is To Live is impressive and awe-inspiring. Solid and fluid, ice and fire, contradictions and tensions. She contains multitudes and it’s what makes this fine art pop transcendental.


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