For anyone who’s familiar with Jehnny Beth as the leader of the post-punk outfit Savages, the artist’s debut solo album might seem like an attempt to diversify her sound. The songs here are anchored by a whirlwind of ambient synths, ominous strings, and industrial noise, while distorted guitars, though still very much present, take a back seat. On the whole, To Love is To Live hints more closely at the theatrical approach of singer-songwriter Anna Calvi than her own work with Savages. But this is nothing new for the French singer, born Camille Berthomier, who has demonstrated her versatility as an artist countless times before – whether it be through her acting career, her early work as one half of a French lo-fi duo John & Jehn, or her collaborations with artists ranging from the xx (whose own Romy Madley appears on this album) to Gorillaz and the Strokes.
If To Love is To Live is more ambitious in its sonic palette than any of her previous work, though, it certainly doesn’t come at the expense of the pummelling intensity and urgency that has been the hallmark of Beth’s music in the past. Instead, it widens her musical scope while magnifying the profundity of her songwriting. On opening track ‘I Am’, a ticking clock can be heard in the background, as if Beth only has a set amount of time to make her defining statement. The fact that the album was inspired by Bowie’s final LP, Blackstar, only amplifies the themes of mortality and death that permeate the underlying subtext of the album. But ‘I Am’ doesn’t provide a list of defining attributes, as its title would suggest, as much as it sets to strip the artist of all associations until all that remains is the driving force of her humanity in its simplest form. “I am naked all the time,” Beth proclaims, a line she circles back to on the album’s closer. The album presents itself more as an attempt to do away with what ‘A Place Above’, the album’s spoken word piece delivered by Cillian Murphy, describes as a kind of “imagined self-importance”, reaching instead for a return to an honest expression of the self in all its contradictions.
Rather than serving as an exploration of primal desires and fears – though there’s plenty of that, too – the record takes on a more interesting path, one that highlights the full spectrum of emotions that come with pondering the impermanence of life, from searing displays of power and emotional detachment to a sincere embrace of vulnerability. Johnny Hostile’s production stands out on the ghostly, unnerving ‘We Will Sin Together’, which is overtaken by a kind of unfiltered preoccupation with youth and sex that keeps resurfacing on the album (“All I want is your sexy eyes/ Your legs parting to the skies”), while ‘Innocence’ underscores the emptiness that lies underneath the album’s ambivalent mood: “I don’t even care about sex no more/ I wanna do things with innocence,” Beth declares amidst throbbing bass and haunting electronics.
While the album is for the most part propelled by the uncompromising force of tracks like the voraciously dramatic ‘I’m The Man’ or the thunderous ‘How Could You’, part of its appeal rests in its propensity to tone things down and offer a more nuanced emotional portrait. ‘Flower’ recalls Sleater-Kinney’s latest foray into synth-pop as Beth, who usually revels in displays of sexual fearlessness, expresses feelings of uncertainty (“I’m not sure how to reach her/ How to touch her”). It’s a surprisingly quiet moment, too, until you get to the album’s not one but two piano ballads, of which ‘French Countryside’ is the clear standout. The track finds Beth intimating her most personal ambitions, shedding off any and all artifice: “And I’ll sing my songs every night, defeat my fears, jump over fires/ I’ll be more self-disciplined, I’ll sacrifice for you/ I’ll stay close to our love like bees over their hives,” she sings. Never has the artist’s vision been more precise or heartfelt. To Love is To Live might have been inspired by a rumination on the kinds of artistic legacies musicians choose to leave behind, but the album’s most resonant sentiments are universal in their earnest sensitivity. And as its title suggests, it’s much more concerned with what it means to live than to die.