FRIDA HYVONEN IS GIVING AWAY girl secrets. Her lyrics are confessions, but not the kind you'd hide in a diary or write in a letter you never send -- they're the kind of things you'd tell another girl, so the two of you could commiserate about the things boys don't understand, about the private frustration of being a woman in a man's world. Her fearlessness makes me envious, even if I'm a little freaked-out that she just threw the clubhouse door open like that.
Until Death Comes, Hyvonen's first record, came out last year in Sweden and a couple weeks ago here in the States. It could be the Swedish equivalent of Liz Phair's Exile in Guyville, full of clear-eyed tales of a hard-thinking girl who hops in and out of bed, drinks some, enjoys herself or doesn't, believes in romance -- and clearly knows the price of all her choices. Until Death Comes doesn't titillate like Guyville did, though -- Phair's perfectly crisp enunciation of words like "cunt" and "fuck" gave her record a calculated 900-number feel, but Hyvonen doesn't seem too interested in the possibility that a woman singing dirty words could get a rise out of people. Plus her record's more casual about its autobiographical tone (read: untouched by shame or guilt). Maybe in Sweden a woman who writes a song about getting drunk and hooking up with a friend doesn't have to handle the topic like a live grenade.
Guest musicians pop up here and there, but for most of the album Hyvonen just accompanies herself on piano, playing with the freshness and unself-consciousness of an amateur who's still in the "I can do anything!" stage of learning an instrument. She tends to alternate like a seesaw between left hand and right -- her parts are rarely more complicated than "Chopsticks" -- and the songs themselves are so bare-bones they sound like the little tunes a carousel plays. Her voice is plain and bright, and she hasn't got any tricks. But the melodies are very pretty, and despite the sparseness of the music, the lyrics don't overwhelm it; instead the two elements click together, the deft simplicity of one balancing the emotional complexity of the other.
"Once I Was a Serene Teenaged Child" unspools over a distant, resonant waltz figure, and for the first six seconds or so it sounds delicate enough -- until Hyvonen matter-of-factly delivers the second line, "Once I felt your cock against my thigh." Soon it's clear that she's taking on an experience I've never heard anyone address in song: the way a girl who wants to be a grown-up woman but still stay one of the guys comes to discover her sexual power over men. "You said a girl like me was torture for you / I didn't know what to do about it and / Somehow it made me feel proud," she sings, then mournfully repeats "The feeling of pride and the loneliness to it" until the song fades. Her narrative is cool and observational -- she doesn't take sides, and no one is painted as a victim. Instead she offers an epistemology of sexuality, a time-lapse film of eager and awkward teenage evolution.
Hyvonen sings as a free girl who does as she pleases, her desires no longer husked in naivete. Her songs are mostly about herself, though some are disguised as songs about boys and her relationships with them. The album's single, "I Drive My Friend," is about taking a friend to the train station after a night out drinking together, a night that turned romantic. She giddily notices tiny details of their trip and promises to wait "a million years" for him to return, plumes of love rising from her hungover heart, but in the next breath she returns to her own life and its glories: "The sun is shining / I have everything / A driver's license / A car and a song to sing." Just to make sure we're clear on her priorities, she repeats the word "sing" 23 times. On "Djuna!" her promise is to herself, to leave the boys behind ("They make me regress and forget my aim"), and she pleads with a friend to remind her that life is "a piece of art and a hell to raise."
What makes Hyvonen's songs seem foreign is this combination of unapologetically unsentimental self-regard and head-rush romance. She operates entirely outside the gender dialectics of pop music, where a woman's power is conventionally measured by her ability to lord it over men or reject them, whether she's an R & B balladeer, a singer-songwriter, or an indie-rock It Girl. Objectification is a given; the male gaze is what mirrors women's worth back to them.
Hyvonen not only does justice to the complexity of female desires but also allows her men three-dimensional depth -- they're not reduced to caricature, either scumbags or superheroes. Men simply don't have the outsize importance to her that would justify demonization or worship -- her world doesn't revolve around the axis of one man's erection. These are the songs of a woman who values her liberation and knows her own worth, whether anybody else does or not.