To the riot, the survival and the fight
Swedish singer-songwriter Jenny Wilson has spoken of a longing to make music that "talks straight to the stomach". Marta Owczarek listens to her latest album and finds a sound that is decidedly more aggressive than her previous work
“‘Be realistic, demand the impossible!’ was a graffiti painted by the 1968’s student radicals over a Paris wall during the uprisings,” says Jenny Wilson about the inspiration for her latest album Demand The Impossible!, released by Sony Sweden/Gold Medal Recordings. The phrase is also attributed to Che Guevara but Wilson is either not aware of this or chosen not to comment on the connection. She has used exclamation marks in album titles before (2009’s Hardships!) but this one seems more deliberately aggressive and confrontational than the title alone. Already, the cover is a departure from Wilson’s signature style of photographs of herself: tasteful but heavily stylised, where she appears in sharp make up, strong outfits, and adorned with jewellery. Even the hunting gun she holds on the cover of Hardships! is an antique, and so arguably more of a prop than an actual threat.
On Demand The Impossible!, Wilson is drawn by urban artist Finsta and appears in grey hoodie, with a zip-up jacket and carries what looks like a machine gun over her shoulder. Half her face is obscured and surreally replaced by stars, vivid and white, contrasting with the messy colours of city lights visible in the background behind a chicken wire fence. It is almost militaristic. Wilson has portrayed herself as a fighter before, but this is an entirely new incarnation: as stated in the press release for DTI! (accessible on Wilson’s Facebook page), she’s a warrior and a street prophet “melting down the universe with an urgency that you never see a politician do”.
Wilson has said, in an interview with Polari magazine, that even before she stumbled upon the photograph of the revolutionary graffiti she wanted the album to be about uprisings, “both physical and mental”. She combined anger and frustration with the wider world with her personal struggle — an uprising within her own body which has kept her from working on music more than once now, including at the beginning of the creative process for DTI!:
For me, the tumults and the revolutionary currents during the last years have been synonymous with what has happened in my own body … [It] became a society in disorder (press release)
Wilson references her ongoing battle with cancer in ‘Restless Wind’ and ‘Autobiography’. The first has a catchy chorus where Wilson’s voice is very sweet, while the line “Restless wind will carry me” is hopeful. However, the rest of the song is a lot darker, with her rapping “My scar, so fresh across my heart” over some hypnotising drumming that wouldn’t be out of place on a poppier hip hop track. The song is also reminiscent of PJ Harvey in its combination of sweetness and ominousness. ‘Autobiography’, predominantly instrumental, was the first piece to be heard from the album and comes with a video that mixes up atomic bomb explosion footage, accelerated growth of plants shooting out of the earth, Wilson in many disguises on the roofs of abandoned buildings and shots of an ambulance rushing through the city. (If you listen to the song out in the streets you might be startled.) Musically, the track builds up slowly from a simple piano and indecipherable extracts from what sounds like a speech to harsher synthy rhythms and Wilson’s voice, severely modified so it sounds almost robotic, chanting:
Cannot put it down with words
Cannot put it down with letters
The scar is my only proof
The scar is my autobiography
Wilson has said that these might be “the best lyrics” she has ever written: “They’re so simple.”
‘Opposition’ is set to some instantly gripping drumming and builds up to a chorus that could soundtrack a protest march
There are definitely themes of frustration with some wider issues in the modern world in DTI!. For example, opening track ‘Opposition’ begins with the statement “You’re gonna give me my freedom back?” set to some instantly gripping drumming, building up to a chorus that could soundtrack a protest march (perhaps a slightly more groovy one than most) and telling ‘brothers and sisters’ to hold their breaths until “political change” happens. Equally confident is ‘The Future’, a track with a strong, dark synth beat, which the video synchronises with footage of meat and dairy factories, people storming into stores or eating fast food, overloaded shopping bags and garbage dumps. Along with this, Wilson shown as a leader of a protest/gang of people walking through an empty city at night with placards, singing “A change is coming on.” In her interview with Polari magazine, she says this was her intended landscape for the album: “Night time. Urban outskirts – under a bridge, or in a viaduct” but also that the sentiment was that of “frustration and anger … but in a positive way”.
Wilson has described the experience of making DTI! as fun but also admits she was “longing to make music that talked straight to your stomach this time”. And it does seem that the lady whose delicate, piercing voice meandered over sugary production of songs like ‘Summer Time – The Roughest Time’ is very much gone. No depth of emotion is lost but Wilson’s sound seems decidedly more aggressive and driven by less poppy and more Afro-poppy beats, Arabic-sounding tunes, a lot of synths, rhythm and some harsher electronics. There are still calmer, slower songs such as the closing ‘Ghost Station’ but, lyrically, these are in line with the confrontational mood of the album (“Will there be blood?/Yes. There will be rivers of blood”).
Wilson calls for the fall of leaders and defends schools and libraries
‘Mean Bone’ is a clash of a classically-trained, conventionally pretty voice with rapping, which brings to mind CocoRosie and their intermingling of different vocal styles. However, here, Wilson is doing that on her own. A spoken introduction by The Soup seems to consolidate a lot of ideas on the album:
Imagine yourself in the soup kitchen
It’s like an altar where you recognize all of the legends, all the losers, the drifters, the battle cruisers … the beggars in the streets
They sing their pleas
This sets a scene of urban decay and regeneration, evoking Wilson’s description of the whole album as “a boiling soup … It’s juicy, it’s rhythmic and with no speed limits”. It then descends into a very catchy, rhythmic and repetitive chorus of “Do you want to taste the soup/Come and take a sip from the spoon” and Wilson rapping again over a drum motive that sounds a bit like it could be played on a makeshift instrument of a trash can or soup pot. It evokes marginalisation and rejection, but also nourishment and, as such, is at the heart of Wilson’s “lust for life and exultant anger”, her “homage to the riot, to the survival, to the fight”, as is perhaps the most unconventional track on the album, ‘University of my Soul’. With minimal sound, it is pretty much a beat/slam poem. Wilson calls for the fall of leaders and defends schools and libraries. She recites:
Me, the pauper
Need no paper
I’m the poet!
Good ideas comes out in limited edition
This is a testimony
Here, Wilson is fully in her street prophet persona of the enlightened underdog and shabby-but-kickass minstrel of the revolution. She has explicitly referenced beat poetry as a lyrical influence but also said that she just wanted to shout. When she says “I’ve never done a greater record. Never written poetry with a sharper pen before. I had no choice,” is she still in a potentially inflated, slightly deluded persona? It’s impossible to say. But what you can definitely hear through the album is someone alive and kicking, yearning to burst out of social confines — as much as from the body — and then kicking all of that down and dancing over the remains.
Cover for Demand the Impossible! shows a drawing of Wilson by Finsta. She appears in a grey hoodie, with a zip-up jacket and carries what looks like a machine gun over her shoulder. Half her face is obscured and replaced by bright stars, contrasting with the messy colours of city lights visible in the background behind a chicken wire fence.