Lush, overheated, understated and threatening, Meshes of Voice brings together two distinctive and idiosyncratic voices, both from Norway. Jenny Hval turned heads with her 2013 album Innocence Is Kinky, a daring blend of the erotic and the disturbing. Susanna has fronted the group Susanna and the Magical Orchestra through several albums of ethereal covers (Scott Walker, Joy Division, Leonard Cohen, AC/DC, et. al.) and elusive originals. (And using her full name, Susanna Wallumrød, she’s recorded Baroque songs and a Nick Drake cover for ECM.) Together, they’ve created an immersive experience where each hothouse flower of a song leads directly to the next. Meshes of Voice creates its own sound world — at first glance intimate and acoustic, with piano or occasionally guitar accompaniment, but surrounded by haunted voices, half-glimpsed electronics and unrecognizable noises.
Both singers have long worked in the fertile if poorly defined territory between pop song and art song, and after a chiming instrumental opening, they dive right in with “Black Lake.” Throbbing piano chords underpin some spare duo singing; an ominous drone and sound effects emerge and take over; and when the piano and vocals return, the two voices are in a wider, more open harmony. The effect is stirring and a bit ambiguous. But that black lake sounds like a dangerous place.
Susanna’s voice is throaty and autumnal; Hval’s has the clarity and at times piercing nasal timbre of an oboe. It is usually pretty easy to distinguish who’s singing what — unless they don’t want you to. “I Have Walked This Body,” an album highlight, has an almost medieval hymn-like melody from both singers over an organ drone, but it’s embellished with eerie will-o-the-wisp effects, many of them vocal, as well as shoegaze guitars and a big post-rock climax. Picking apart where the various sounds are coming from would be a fool’s errand.
On the other hand, “A Mirror in My Mouth,” perhaps the most conventionally beautiful song here, is clearly Jenny Hval’s melody over some elegant acoustic guitar, with Susanna’s voice weaving its own magical counterpoint. The singers must’ve known they were on to something with this track, because when it ends, it actually ends, giving the listener a brief moment of stillness before the second half of the album kicks in.
That stillness is followed by “Thirst That Resembles Me,” built on a deep, unsettling drone (it sounds like highly processed Tibetan chant), with the two vocalists floating in and around each other. Here, themes of lust and physicality color the lyrics and bleed into the sonic landscape too. That too is something that ties the album together: You’ll hear it also in the keening vocals and icy electronics of “Milk Pleasures,” for example, or the weird choral effect and rumbling drones of the aptly named “I Have a Darkness.” Some of the imagery recurs: “A Sudden Swing” is a kind of epilogue or companion piece to “I Have Walked This Body,” and the album closes with a return to the black lake in “The Black Lake Took.”
Nothing here is taken for granted. Ideas of beauty — in our bodies, our landscapes, our singing, even in something as basic as tuning — are all in play in this remarkably conceived song cycle.