Savages' Jehnny Beth Finds Power in Softness on Solo Debut 'To Love Is to Live'
Published Jun 10, 2020Those looking to fill their Savages-shaped void may be thrown for a loop by Jehnny Beth's To Love Is to Live — though it carries much of the same tensely coiled fury and bruised sexuality, Beth's debut solo record is a creepier, quieter affair. The gritty, airtight post-punk assaults are mostly gone, replaced by a combination of trip-hop, piano balladry, distorted French pop and sinewy, synthetic post-rock.
Savages were famous for their precise musicianship and self-serious pursuit of punk catharsis — To Love Is to Live is often equally self-serious, though it's decidedly less interested in release. Beth knows her way around a memorable chorus, but where Savages sprinted and attacked, these songs tend toward a sinister slither. She still interrogates many of her band's favourite topics — sexuality, dominance, revulsion, love. However, where these concepts were previously explored from a furious distance, To Love Is to Live takes a scalpel to the specific dynamics of power and sex that corrupt and drive our love stories. It examines big ideas with a microscopic lens.
This up-close-and-personal view, while invigorating, also lays bare the record's missteps. Beth's writing has often toed the line between sly humour and heavy-handedness, and To Love Is to Live is no different – even still, the transition between Cillian Murphy-narrated "A Place Above" and the pounding "I'm The Man" is cause for whiplash. The record sometimes feels caught in some strange limbo between Beth's stately French chill and her hot-blooded fury, and the tracks that manage to merge these energies are hit-or-miss. First single "Flower" is dampened and limp, where "Innocence" is taut and electric, metallic pops of percussion and Beth's embittered vocal rhythm making for a thrilling high.
The record's best moments, somewhat surprisingly, are its softest. The shivering "The Rooms" is a tense exhale, while "The French Countryside" provides a welcome gust of warmth and tender yearning among all the chill. Beth has cracked herself open here, allowing space for the various shades of her distinctive, vitalizing voice. It's a slightly scattered record, but one fuelled by an invigorating conviction and helmed by an artist with the gravitational pull to make it all align. (Arts & Crafts)