Following two incredible records with Savages, To Love is to Live is the sound of an artist testing their individual strength, where the idea of the solo sport of boxing, and its ‘rope-a-dope’ technique comes to mind.
Perfected by Muhammad Ali in his bruising Rumble in the Jungle encounter with George Forman, it’s a method where the victor takes blow upon blow before landing the decisive counter-punch. It’s effectively an endurance test, where precision has to be married with patience, and at the end, the viewer feels exhilarated and more than a little exhausted.
A similar sense of battle runs through To Love is to Live. From the artwork, where Beth is depicted as a marble statue, poised to duck, weave and land a killer right hook, to the music, it moves from the visceral to the contemplative. However, it lacks the finesse of Ali’s rope-a-dope, where amidst the wild swings, it’s the slower moves that work best.
To Love is to Live starts brilliantly, where like a fighter cautiously entering the ring on “I Am”, Beth’s initially slowed down voice ruminates on feeling like “A voice no one can hear, I am drifting through the years.” It’s incredible, where the pitch-shifts in her voice are frightened and menacing; not unlike the tone the evil version of Galadriel used to scared the shit out of the Hobbits in The Fellowship of the Ring.
In terms of precision, “I Am” is matched by the piano ballads. On “The Rooms”, a world-weary Beth sighs “So don’t tell me how it is boy, because I’ve seen it all” and the records highlight, “The French Countryside”, a revolving, Erik Satie piano motif, that shows what a great storyteller Beth can be.
But the moments of stillness are followed by a relentlessness of noise that lack the thrilling subtlety of the ballads. In boxing, the knockout punch is the denouement, but here they land after each jab. Cillian Murphy’s spoken word poem on “A Place Above”, delivered in that incredible voice of his, blends into the ferocious volume of “I’m The Man”. “How Could You”, a duet with IDLES’ Joe Talbot, mines Beth’s love of Fugazi, with Talbot playing the part of Ian MacKaye, but the song gets lost in its cacophony of shouting, where a more restrained meeting of their voices could have been far more rewarding.
The finale, “Human” neatly refrains “I Am”, a welcome and restrained ending to a bloody battle, but it also raises a nagging question of pacing, and whether striking out as solo artist was the right move. When they released Adore Life, Savages were arguably the most important band on the planet. In Gemma Thompson they possessed one of the finest guitarists of her generation, Ayşe Hassan and Fay Milton were up there with greatest of rhythm sections and in Beth, they had the fulcrum of the perfect gang.
As a solo artist, Beth undoubtedly possesses the same intensity, but the nuances and texture her former bandmates brought to the fray are somewhat lacking. In The Rumble In The Jungle, Ali, considered way past his peak, knocked out the fearsome Forman in the eighth round. The moments to marvel at weren’t the flurry of decisive, endgame blows, it was Ali’s resolute stillness in the rounds building up to them.
Similarly, To Love is to Live works best when Beth channels solemnity rather than bombast. The relentless bursts of energy that punctuate the record are often thrown as wild haymakers, yet it’s the cerebral moments before they land that deliver the most rewarding blows.