Jenny Hval opens her 2015 record Apocalypse, girl with a set of instructions. "Think big, girl. Like a king," she says with a slow, intentional patience on "Kingsize." A few seconds later, she poses the question, "What is soft dick rock?" It may be a jarring start for those unfamiliar with Hval's work, but it's a hallmark of her talent for pushing listeners out of their comfort zones. Hval isn't just a gifted experimental musician with a knack for wry turns of phrase. She's making some of the most unusual and affirming music of this decade.
Hval's work can be called "feminist," but it's far from any splashy girl-power pop anthems. Rather, Hval seems most concerned with exposing the intimate and often uncomfortable truths of living as female, vacillating between harsh sonic prickles and gentle reassurances. Apocalypse, girl dug into ideas of expectations within gender roles ("What is it to take care of yourself? What are we taking care of?" she asks on "That Battle Is Over"), while 2016's Blood Bitch was a loose concept record about female vampires and menstrual periods. She's unafraid to explore sex and sexuality, addressing it with an engrossing, flat frankness.
When Hval inverts our ideas of sex, romance, and intimacy, as she does on songs like "Conceptual Romance," the results are mesmerizing—even the insecurity of self-doubt can be liberating for Hval. "It can be about refusing to accept the self as we know it—refusing to be owned by people who look at you, or to be pigeonholed," she said in a 2015 interview with Pitchfork.
Next week, Hval releases a new EP, The Long Sleep, which she concludes with another fleck of tenderness. "I want to tell you something. I just want to say, thank you. I love you," she murmurs. Her soft, professed adoration feels almost as disarming as hearing her speak about cocks or taking birth control with rosé—and therein lies Hval's clever power.