Anna Calvi has received a lot of comparisons to artists like PJ Harvey, and it’s not just because one of Harvey’s long-term collaborators, Rob Ellis, produced her debut album. The British singer-songwriter is one of the many musicians who are often frustratingly referred to as ‘female artists’ as opposed to simply ‘artists’, and the problem with that, obviously, is that it prevents them from being viewed in the same manner as their male counterparts, rather than as a response to them, making it harder for artists like Calvi to defy those stereotypes and break away from traditional spaces. “One person asked me how I felt playing a ‘phallic instrument’,” say Calvi, who has often been called a guitar virtuoso. The long wait between her 2013 record ‘One Breath’ and her new album ‘Hunter’ has evidently given her time to reflect on these issues and create art that is a step forward not only in terms of defining her sound but also in redefining the heteronormative expectations that have been set for her.
It’s not that gender hasn’t been an important aspect of Calvi’s music in the past. Calvi herself has claimed that her songs have always been queer, and that people who needed a representative role model could identify with them, even if she wasn’t explicitly talking about gender. But her new album is more of an attempt to go beyond gender, a more direct and simultaneously defiant statement that sees her embracing the subject with the kind of openness that comes after deep introspection and big life changes. (Following her tour in 2014, Calvi broke up with her girlfriend of eight years, moved to France with her new girlfriend, and in 2018, publicly came out). As a result, Calvi is at her most focused and confident on ‘Hunter’, a powerful record that playfully explores the fluidity of gender and sexual desire in a refreshingly wild yet often vulnerable way.
French feminist critic Hélène Cixous used the term ‘bisexuality’ to refer to the ability to identify with both female and male perspectives, not as a means of reinforcing established gender binaries but in order to displace ideas of masculinity and femininity. Just one look at the tracklisting, and song titles like ‘As a Man’, ‘Hunter’, and ‘Don’t Beat the Girl out of My Boy’ already suggest that Calvi might be engaging with that concept. While Calvi does not identify as trans, the songs here are a vessel for her to delve into the possibilities of gender performance in various ways. On ‘As a Man’, she imagines it as a tool for empathy: “If I was a man in all but my body/ Oh would I now understand you completely”. On ‘Chain’ it becomes a subversive means of providing sexual pleasure as she plays with the words “girl” and “boy”: “I’ll be the boy you be the girl I’ll be the girl you be the boy I’ll be the girl (wonderful feeling),” she sings fervently. In an Instagram post, she explains: “I want to repeat the words “girl boy, woman man”, over and over, to find the limits of these words, against the vastness of human experience.” A track like ‘Alpha’ overflows with energy and a sense of freedom, as Calvi not only expresses her desires but also takes the word “alpha” and strips it of its masculine connotations, repurposing it to simply mean strong, fearless.
Stylistically, too, there are many similarities to her previous material, but there’s an improvement on nearly all fronts. The sound is still uniquely atmospheric and cinematic, with lots of skillfully-played guitar parts that give it a rock edge, the songwriting unusually memorable and catchy for the genre, while her impressive voice has that operatic quality that makes her stand out. But on her new album, she challenges herself to the fullest extent and gives some of the most fierce and tireless performances of her career: the screeching sounds in the background of the opening track, the animalistic vocal solo at the end of ‘Don’t Beat the Girl Out of My Boy’, the genuinely imposing way she repeats the first syllable of a word in the refrains of ‘Alpha’ and ‘Chain’ are just a few of the most memorable moments. You simply wouldn’t expect those vocals to come from someone as seemingly soft-spoken and shy as Calvi, and it’s a testament to hard work and a newfound sense of self-assurance. Of course, the production is there to back her up every step of the way, from the throbbing bass line on tracks like the ethereal ‘Indies or Paradise’ or ‘Chain’ to the thumping percussion on ‘Alpha’. That last track also features a chaotically fuzzed-out guitar solo towards the end, and it’s one of the best examples where the guitar reaches more invigorating and experimental heights than in any of her other efforts.
Not all songs here burn with that incessant intensity, and thankfully Calvi allows space for the listener to breathe, sometimes within the same track. (I use the word ‘breathe’ on purpose: breathing was such an important symbol on ‘One Breath’, and it resurfaces multiple times here both through the lyrics and the dynamic musical tension.) There’s the stunningly dreamy yet still sensuous ‘Swimming Pool’, while two more similarly quieter tracks come at the very end of the album: ‘Away’ is by far the album’s most movingly intimate tune, while closer ‘Eden’ finishes the album off with some of the most heavenly melodies and beautiful imagery, a reminder of just how much Calvi structures a record like a film. In that Instagram post, Calvi closes by saying she intended for the album to be “primal and beautiful, vulnerable and strong, to be the hunter and the hunted.” She certainly succeeded in the most liberating and honest way, and this is only the beginning. A new beginning, anyway.