“I have long felt frustrated at the limitations of what a woman is allowed to be, on a very basic level,” Anna Calvi says about the main concept behind Hunter, her third album. “Perfect, smiling, accommodating. Why do I have to live up to these ideals because of my anatomy?”
Well, she doesn’t. And she isn’t. Not that this is some diatribe against men or inequality between the sexes. Instead, Calvi continues on a (now) long journey to better understand herself, her sexuality, and how she fits in this increasingly topsy-turvy, gender-fluid world. She is really throwing off the shackles here, her visceral music acting as the cathartic remedy that is the raison d’etre for so many musical artists to get in this game in the first place.
Produced by Nick Launay at Konk Studios in London with some further production in LA, the album was recorded with Anna’s band – Mally Harpaz on various instruments and Alex Thomas on drums – with the addition of Adrian Utley from Portishead on keys and Martyn Casey from The Bad Seeds on bass. It has a rawness, and a primal energy into which Calvi pushes the limits of her guitar and voice beyond anything she’s recorded before. There’s equal measure vulnerability and strength throughout, counterbalanced by a harsh beauty, expressed through that dramatic voice, and her guitar, which for the most part acts as a tool to express her emotions, as well as adding splashes of colour and texture here and there.
“If I was a man in all but my body, oh would I now understand you completely”, she begins on ‘As A Man’, stripped back with an 80s aesthetic, clunking, harsh drums, synth and rhythmic strokes. This theme of male-female conditionality is prevalent everywhere. On ‘Don’t Beat The Girl Out Of My Boy’, which talks about how young children are when they’re conditioned to follow gender roles, and on the playful musicality and lyricism of ‘Alpha’, but replete with a passage of truly ear shattering, pitch bending and wild guitar histrionics, a feature of Calvi’s unique style.
With musical touchstones such as Nick Cave and PJ Harvey on show, like them, Calvi can sound both fearsome and gentle: her voice in particular careering from the softly spoken to the primal, best heard on ‘Chain’, which begins with just a folksy voice, before it turns on a sixpence. Calvi then begins wailing and imploring to a lover: “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)”. On the arpeggio rich ‘Swimming Pool’ – named after a David Hockney painting – where an ethereal Twin Peaks musical aesthetic sees Calvi breathlessly invoking a utopian vision of queer acceptance.
Twinned with strong melodies, a musicality that is both raw and refined, and a disarming honesty, Hunter is about questioning, and ultimately dispensing with, her own gender assumptions – masculinity and femininity are wholly intertwined – while embracing her innate lust and animalistic spirit. She wants to be free to experience life as flesh and blood, without gender assumptions. As she sings on ‘As A Man’: “Something has changed, I feel it discreetly / Oh now I feel, now I feel you completely”.