Jenny Hval trades the signifiers of expansiveness and rawness of her earlier work for an investigation into deceptively smoother surfaces on her seventh album, The Practice of Love (Sacred Bones). She digs deep into community as a conduit for fostering and enriching love. With a core group of featured artists, that sense of community made this beguiling record possible; over eight tracks, six feature at least one other artistic voice. Collaborators include Singaporean synth player Vivan Wang, ambient deep texturist Félicia Atkinson, and Australian chamber-folk songwriter Laura Jean. They overlap, reinforce, and pull against Hval and one another. That community comes to the forefront on the record’s eponymous track, a cut-up conversation where the women speaking grapple with fitting into the world.
Throughout the record, Hval never loses sight of “practice” as both a verb and a noun. The lyrics, sometimes obliquely, detail the attention and the practice of showing up required for love and intimacy to move beyond an abstraction. She comes to understand that work through characters who aren’t as self-aware, bringing them to life through hints and implications that recall lyric poetry.
“She was certain the lyrics were about burying someone’s ashes,” she sings on “Ashes to Ashes,” describing a woman trying to remember and describe a dream. “High Alice” features a woman rummaging through history to make sense of it all, “They must be drawn to something. She must be giving them something,” she sings with an assuredness that doesn’t look down on the character’s lack of the same confidence.
Musically, Hval wrings maximum impact out of the static and ambient soundscapes here. Spider-webbed keyboard cells pulse through “Accident;” trills shoot sparks through the loping beats of “High Alice;” and sustained notes and drones offer a rich backdrop for the spoken voices on the title track.
The steadiness of The Practice of Love as a whole enriches the revelatory songs that crack those smooth surfaces. Hval spatter-paints rising horns behind and atop a skittering rhythm and synth strands on “Thumbsucker,” with the ecstatic, woozy feeling of a sunrise coming into focus. The album closer, “Ordinary,” builds to a triumphant, anthemic crescendo with Hval’s voice almost a whisper on lines like “I want to go outside again,” and “I don’t always get to choose,” backed by counterpoint vocals.
The Practice of Love trades some visceral and addictive dissonance for a meditative album full of space. Sleekness and soothing surfaces shine complicated lights on the human voice in concert with others, and the joy and frustration of drilling down into oneself.