As frontwoman of twice-Mercury nominated punk outfit Savages, Jehnny Beth showed up as one of rock’s performing greats. As a solo act, she becomes a fantasy author and a God, an antagonist and a heroine. And yet through 40 minutes of exhaustive industrial beauty, Beth rips away her tough skin to show the human muscle underneath. On its surface, To Love Is To Live is cold and hard as marble, but reach out to touch it and it’s a warm-blooded manifesto for the agony and awe of being alive.
‘I Am’ is a chilly, enormous landscape of cinema that introduces what will become a repeated and effective piece of To Love Is To Live’s emotive weaponry: sinister vocal pitch shifting. Beth calls to us in a deep tone that evokes the cold impenetrability of the marble she is cast in on the album artwork. Nerves shred along with orchestral and synth movements, seagulls wheel overhead and machines creak into action as in a grand, epic piece of fiction. But among the industrial and the doom, there’s always time for a piano.
It's a dichotomy that repels and attracts throughout this eleven-track sculpture. From Cillian Murphy’s piano-backed social commentary on ‘A Place Above’ into lead single ‘The Man’, Beth sweeps the listener from the faltering of a single ivory into the bludgeoning electronic percussion of an industrial hurricane. Hard then slow, angry then contemplative, Beth projects the human experience with breathtaking dexterity.
In lyrics, the cramps and comfort of being a human in the world reach an unbearably poignant pitch. With The xx’s Romy on ‘Heroine’, Beth takes the mantle of the track’s titular character with faltering humility. On ‘Innocence’ she breathes deeply through a tirade of feelings and emotions that come to her on a gale of thought: “and there’s the guilt of course/ because I was raised Catholic” she adds in a voice that alternates between her own taut delivery and the demonic inner voice of the pitch shifter. On ‘Flower’, it’s sex that feels the iron petal of Beth’s writing.
In the machine nightmare of ‘How Could You’, she shares vocal duties with friend and IDLES frontman Joe Talbot, himself an artist who holds rage and vulnerability together as a pair. On ‘The French Countryside’ Beth recovers again to deliver a pastoral piano ballad with quite the same power as its industrial predecessors: in moments of quiet, Beth proves that it is emotion and not decibels that fortify To Love Is To Live with such force.
With her longest piece and closing act ‘Human’, Beth draws a line under her debut solo work with characteristic flourish: in anguish and in hope. Like few artists can, Jehnny Beth represents the human experience with her tumultuous solo debut. Through remarkable use of Chiaroscuro - the effect of starkly contrasting light and dark - To Love Is To Live makes a cathartic listen filled with trembling courage.
To Love Is To Live is released on 12 June 2020 via Caroline Records.