Jehnny Beth’s voice is made for chaos. With Savages, the noisy English punk group she fronted last decade, her vocals sounded defiantly pretty and powerful as they fought to rise above the group’s shadowy guitar carnage. And with John and Jehn — the dramatic, lo-fi duo she formed with her longtime partner, Johnny Hostile, in her native France — she added expressionistic voice textures that highlighted the dark guitar lines and, when she sang lyrics, her voice shone through the duskiness. On her first solo album, the chaos is entirely hers.
Inspired by how David Bowie crafted his final LP, Blackstar, with the knowledge that it would be his farewell so it had to be meaningful, Beth set out to make her own defining statement with To Love Is to Live. What she came up with sounds nothing like her past projects, with its open-diary lyrics and extraterrestrial electronic soundscapes that seem to blend together.
Best absorbed in a single, uninterrupted sitting than in pieces, the music transforms from sweet and cinematic to harsh and claustrophobic, and Beth’s voice similarly vacillates between acidic and corrosive or lush and full of yearning, in a manner that echoes Patti Smith. Her lyrics are often uncomfortably revealing, as she peels apart her feelings about love, sex, sin, femininity, masculinity, Catholic guilt, and violence and how they all define her — often on the same song. She’s a rare artist who thrives on overthinking everything (hey, she is French) and the album’s general grandiosity never feels obnoxious.
Beth opens the record with the words “I am naked all the time,” spoken in a deep, alien voice — as if it represents her id — and it might as well be her manifesto as she excavates her innermost thoughts in a stream of consciousness manner for the next 40 minutes. That track, “I Am,” blossoms with filmic strings that swell around her voice, as she howls, “I am young and innocent, but I’m burning inside.” That flame carries into the next track, “Innocence,” which is buttressed by a harder-hitting electronic backdrop, as she examines her self-doubt and damns the way Catholicism taught her “it’s bad form to think man is a piece of shit.” And she develops that thought later, on “I’m the Man, when she takes the opposing viewpoint and picks apart toxic masculinity, hollering, “I’m a man, there’s no bitch in town who doesn’t understand how hard my kick can be,” over slamming rhythms cowritten by Nine Inch Nails’ Atticus Ross. Those “I’m a man” proclamations spill into the background of a piano ballad, “The Rooms,” but it presents a scene in which gender roles are reversed: women act like johns picking out men to be their prostitutes. But there’s a sadness to that song, rather than some kind of allure. It’s hard to keep track of the twists and turns, but it all adds up to a unique anxiety.
The way she assumes other perspectives — really just different sides of herself — is what makes the record compelling. She has said that despite coming out as bisexual in the past, “Flower,” with its slow-building strip-club soundtrack, is her first love song for a woman. She sings to the woman dancing, “My skin is wide open, my heart forever frozen,” before seductively whispering, “How come I can’t get closer?” She blurs her feelings further on the next song, the hazy “We Will Sin Together,” on which she presents the album’s title in full: “To love is to live/To live is to sin/I take you down with me.”
The record is also capable of poignant moments when she relaxes her guard, like “Heroine,” which sports a sublime chorus and finds her singing “All I want is to be the woman you never see,” and “French Countryside,” a gorgeous love song that proves her voice can pair as beautifully with piano as with static. “All my life I’ve been hanging around the wrong places,” she croons on the latter tune, “And on my life I’m here at last telling you I am changing.” But it’s in the context of how she describes feeling like she’s in a crashing plane and the way the song contrasts the rest of the record’s pandemonium that make the words feel like more than clichés. It’s a moment of clarity, and it feels all the more stunning when juxtaposed with, “Human,” the LP’s final track and only misstep. That song returns to claustrophobic key changes and messy sax solos, as Beth describes how using the internet has ruined her (“I tried reading books but that skill eludes me now,” goes one lyric that does feel like a cliché), and even if all her points about how the web atrophies your brain are valid, it breaks the spell.
Before “Human” is over, though, she smartly returns to her original theme — “I am naked all the time … I am sorry for my mistakes” — and her sense of disorder and regret makes sense again. The way Beth took an inventory of her emotions, her shortcomings, and her strengths seems like a path to madness, so it’s a wonder she was able to come out on the other side of To Live Is to Love. What she does with that self-analysis next might be even more fascinating.