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Danger and Pleasure

Anna Calvi explores gender’s fluidity, female alienation, and hope

Anna Calvi has just released “Hunter.”
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The first indication that out queer British singer Anna Calvi’s “Hunter” was going to be something special came with the June release of the music video for its first single, “Don’t Beat the Girl Out Of My Boy.” Without breaking into a narrative, it uses dance and lighting to suggest a wide range of emotions between men and women. Most of it consists of Calvi dancing with a man who grabs her chest under bright red lighting. It never overtly depicts rape, but the experience seems to test the boundaries of consent; the portion of the video that takes place under flashing blue lights is particularly disturbing. It expresses something about the difficulties women have living out relationships with men without the threat of violence (which it never depicts, but remains just at the boundary of). The song’s lyrics stress the importance of recognizing men’s feminine qualities, as one can tell from the title, but playing with gender is a running theme through the album.

It’s quickly apparent that PJ Harvey looms large as an influence over “Hunter,” but Calvi’s music has a melodramatic, near-operatic streak all its own. Her voice leaps to falsetto near the end of “Hunter.” Harvey herself has cited Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds as an inspiration, and much of “Hunter” evokes the same Gothic swamp blues. In fact, Bad Seeds bassist Martyn Casey plays on the album, along with Portishead’s Adrian Utley, who contributes keyboards. Calvi’s lyrics and sensibility evokes the punk poetry of ‘70s Patti Smith, who kicked off her debut album “Horses” with a re-write of Van Morrison’s “Gloria” in which she reclaimed male rock’n’roll lyrics about lusting after women even though Smith is heterosexual.

Without even listening to the lyrics on “Hunter,” the album’s title and song titles like “As A Man,” “Alpha,” and “Don’t Beat the Girl Out Of My Boy” suggest the extent to which it expresses the idea that gender is a fluid construct and all people contain elements of masculinity and femininity. She’s said that “As A Man” is about the way women are seen as stronger for acting more masculine, but men are rarely encouraged to act more feminine.

On “Alpha,” she sings, “I’m an alpha/ I divide and conquer… my body’s still on.” Yet the song isn’t a simple denunciation of the concept of male power represented by the “alpha male.” Calvi clearly identifies with the sexual desire expressed in the song; if anything, she wants to turn it in a healthier direction by having the song’s narrator constantly emphasize her desire to please her lover while achieving her own pleasure.

“Chain” describes another sexual encounter, this one initiated by another woman who “took me to the back seat and said, ‘Don’t breathe,’” that stretches gender roles. The title track refers to feeling constrained by them; instead, Calvi sings, “I’ll be the boy, you’ll be the girl” repeatedly.

All the progressive ideas in the world wouldn’t matter if Calvi didn’t also know how to make a kick-ass rock’n’roll album that comes close to her influences’ quality. Her guitar solos on “Indies Or Paradise” and “Alpha” aim for Stooges’ guitarist James Williamson’ speaker-shredding noise. Utley’s keyboards are deployed subtly and atmospherically. On “Hunter,” Calvi sings over a track dominated by synthesizer and a mechanical drum machine. Throughout the album, Calvi combines raw guitar playing with precise, near-robotic drumming, even when the latter seems to be played by a human. She weaves hooks from overdubbed vocals into her songs. Calvi has picked up the feminist elements of Harvey songs like “50 Foot Queenie” and “Sheela-Na-Gig” (even if Harvey herself hates the word), and expanded greatly upon them, with a cinematic embrace of sweeping emotional dynamics.

The media constantly tell us that young men are horribly alienated, and that this is a social crisis. “Hunter” speaks for equally alienated women, who are just as blindsided by changing expectations about what they are supposed to achieve, but who playfully ignore and step all over the rules about what men and women are required to be in Western culture.

The album never preaches. Calvi’s lyrics don’t come off like a treatise inspired by academic theory about gender roles as a social construct, even if it may be the source of some of her ideas. The world described by “Hunter” is dangerous, but it’s a ground where women can experience pleasure and take control over their sexuality, too. Anger and tension fill Calvi’s music, but so do beauty and hope.

ANNA CALVI | “Hunter” | Domino | annacalvi.com

Updated 5:12 pm, September 12, 2018
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