Jehnny Beth’s first solo outing, TO LOVE IS TO LIVE, is a brisk, bold album that examines human experience through an array of musical experimentation. The frontwoman, formerly of Savages and John & Jehn, continues her career of creating stark moods through her powerful voice. The overall experience of the album becomes something similar to the films Under the Skin or The Man Who Fell to Earth, as a story told from a genderless alien who is visiting the chaotic world of humans for a time, trying to figure out why we do what we do.
The album opener has Jehnny Beth seemingly emulating the character she embodies on the album cover. “I am naked all the time,” she sings, “I am burning inside.” This song, “I Am,” acts an introduction to the album, building in intensity and focus. Seamlessly, Jehnny Beth then moves into “Innocence.” This song throttles you from its first second, inundating you with a surge of music and the aggressive, but controlled, vocals Jehnny Beth excels at. The intensity of this song could mirror the emotion felt by this creature Beth embodies, suddenly experiencing the tumult of the human experience. Specifically, “Innocence” upends the expectations of the title by containing quite cynical lyrics about humanity. Beth sings, “it’s living in the city that turned my heart so small.” Anyone who has had to survive within the grind of city life can understand that notion.
On other parts of the album, Jehnny Beth explores human sexuality and intimacy through this alien perspective. “Flower” has the singer lamenting that “I’m not sure how to please her/I’m not sure how to reach her/how to touch her” over a smooth trip-hop beat. This creature Jehnny Beth embodies may be confused as to how to profess their love, but they don’t realize every other human has this same problem. The companion piece for this song, “We Will Sin Together,” marks one of a few instances throughout the album that dips a little too deeply into the “Catholic guilt makes sexuality feel sinful” well, which is explicitly referenced at one point. It may just be this listener’s opinion, but it does add a hint of bitter taste to the album.
The middle of the album takes an interesting turn, with “A Place Above.” This spoken-word piece by actor Cillian Murphy features compelling verse (“Everybody loses…/and I’m left with hatred and violence/ Tell me who I am now/ I’m just like you”) but does feel slightly surprising in its appearance. Perhaps its presence on the album retroactively feels like a tie-in to Murphy’s show, Peaky Blinders, as the song that follows him is “I’m the Man,” a song written for that show. That’s ultimately small (Irish) potatoes, despite the minor distraction, because “I’m the Man” is quite an electric song. Jehnny Beth delivers bold swagger over a musical cacophony while letting a moment of quiet vulnerability slip in near the end, betraying a deeper well of feeling in the singer.
“The Rooms” follows this highly macho aggressive song with an equally gentle one. “The Rooms” feels linked with “I’m the Man,” like two sides of one coin. The rest of the album balances this combination of soft and loud, often careening back and forth. Throughout TO LOVE IS TO LIVE, the rock songs succeed more often than the quiet songs, with the late exception of “French Countryside.” In continuing a trend of songs that pair well with each other, “French Countryside” feels like a soft follow-up to the angry explosion of “How Could You” before it. These little stories and conversations held between songs throughout the album routinely provoke your interest whenever it may start to flag.
The album ends with “Human,” which repeats lyrics from “I Am” while adding some new ones describing the singer’s physical deterioration. By the end of the album, Jehnny Beth’s visitor to humankind has experienced the gamut of emotions and experiences, both good and bad, and now they are suffering the ravages of time like everyone else. It’s a brief, but intense, life on TO LOVE IS TO LIVE, but the telling of it sometimes suffers from a distance and an ever-shifting focus.