Theatrical, honest debut from French triple threat
Known professionally as Jehnny Beth, French singer, songwriter and actress Camille Berthomier breaks down the human experience in her debut solo album, TO LOVE IS TO LIVE. Frontwoman of English rock band Savages and half of lo-fi duo John & Jehn, Beth melds her extensive musical knowledge with her personal experiences in order to make her first record a statement piece.
In order to understand the highly experimental TO LOVE IS TO LIVE, it’s crucial to look at Beth’s upbringing. Between growing up the child of Catholic theater director parents and training in the dramatic arts at the conservatoire de Poitiers, Beth was bound to be rebellious and challenge the status quo.
Challenging may be one of the best ways to describe the record. It’s by no means easy-listening, however, if people know what to look for, it’s an insightful meditation on sex, love, lust and morality. Produced by Flood, Academy award winner Atticus Ross and Beth’s life and creative partner Johnny Hostile, TO LOVE IS TO LIVE is heartbreakingly intimate, yet entirely unapologetic.
The opener, “I Am,” becomes a mantra for the album, a reference point that comes up again and again. It begins with a clock ticking and a haunting spoken word section which bookends the project. The first of many tracks to utilize ambient background noise and cinematic sounds, “I Am” does a brilliant job of introducing and preparing the entire album.
From the very first lyrics, Beth sets listeners up to understand her struggle. She sings, “I am naked all the time/ I am burning inside.” The duality of being open and unafraid in her sexuality versus the anxiety that accompanies openly embracing herself in such a way is the most important theme of the record. Through the progression of the tracks, she brings listeners along as she tries to work through it. Whether she succeeds or not may still be up in the air.
The single, “Innocence,” feels like the epitome of Beth’s sound. Loud, angry and with plenty of dissonance, she forces listeners to become just as uncomfortable as she by using clashing sounds. Lyrically strong as well, Beth uses a city as a metaphor for how disconnected people have become while simultaneously inviting listeners into the personal story she’s telling by singing: “And there’s the guilt of course/ ‘Cause I was raised catholic/ And it teach you it’s bad form to think/ Man is a piece of shit/ Die, die, die of safety.”
The heaviness of the first couple tracks continues through majority of the album. Where songs like “We Will Sin Together” are dark and ominous, “Flower” is lighter and delicate as she reflects on an old relationship with a woman. She tackles gender politics throughout the record but “I’m the Man” is surely the loudest. Stimulating to no end, complete with fuzz and distortion, the track is punk through and through. It’s impressive, the relative ease with which Beth balances genre and tone.
Beth’s vocals are desperate and emotive on every track, likely thanks to her dramatic training, however, she shines in the second half of the album. In “Heroine,” she sounds on the verge of tears as she begs for a higher power to help her, crying out, “She must be there/ A heroine,” on repeat. Her voice comes through clearest on “French Countryside,” a solemn ballad complete with piano and birdsong. It is a beacon of sunshine in the sheer darkness of this record.
Despite how well executed the entire album is, the closer is most definitely the strongest song. “Human” opens with the same clock from the beginning and an incredibly catchy bassline. She sounds more open, honest and raw as she simply states, “I used to be a human being.” The end of this cinematic journey, Beth is defeated because this personal struggle to achieve balance turns out to be unending. The song cycles back to Beth singing the same words from the opener, “I am naked all the time/ I am burning inside.” Her struggle begins again.
Beth is confessional and abrasive in her debut release, taking inspiration from her own previous projects and yet releasing something that sounds entirely different. Her transparency is refreshing and TO LOVE IS TO LIVE is a release with something to say which everyone needs to hear.