Willfully enigmatic and unshakably fascinating in its atmospheric abstraction.
Jenny Hval has never been one to shy away from lyrical and thematic provocation. Her first several releases dealt with explicit sexual subject matter that stood in direct contrast to the music enveloping it. This contrast between prurience and lightness offers a jarring juxtaposition that places Hval in a category all her own. Yet even without the unapologetically sexual forthrightness in many of her lyrics, Hval would still be an impressive, engaging modern performer. Her approach, much like that of Björk before her, relies on a voice that ranges from angelic beauty to childlike innocence to an unsettlingly demonic howl, all the while using a host of electronics to create textures more than produce traditionally-structured songs.
Despite the harsh consonants and connotations of the title of Hval’s latest, Blood Bitch is largely a surprisingly restrained affair. Throughout, her voice tends to float well above the almost ambient arrangements. It causes a mildly hallucinogenic effect in its ability to disorient, even after repeated listens. This approach serves her well, allowing both the artist and the art to remain enigmatic, the vocals often masked or buried within the mix to the point of indecipherability.
A quick glance at the tracklist indicates the album’s thematic bent. With tracks like lead single “Female Vampire,” “In The Red” and “Period Piece,” the album’s blood imagery is made abundantly clear. Each of the 10 tracks references blood in some form or another, either poetically or clinically, lending an overarching theme of life—its physical makeup inside and out—and what it means to be a woman.
“The Great Undressing” begins with a snippet of conversation between Hval and a friend as they discuss the album. Unnamed friend: “What’s this album about, Jenny?” Hval: “It’s about vampires.” Friend: “What?!” Hval: “Well, it’s about more than that.” This last statement essentially sums up the entire ethos of Hval’s approach to songwriting. On the surface, everything is very straightforward and black-and-white. But delve further into any of the album’s 10 tracks and you’ll find yourself face-to-face with an unsettling ambiguity.
Only “Period Piece” finds itself borrowing explicitly from Hval’s more prurient past, its title a double meaning tied to a scene in miniature as well as a frank discussion of her menstruation (a running theme throughout). Yet much of this is lost in translation due to the ephemeral nature of Hval’s vocals. It takes several listens to realize she is singing, “In the doctor’s office/ Speculum pulls me open,” during a particularly pleasant moment. “Don’t be afraid/ It’s only blood,” she reassures us, once again calling forth the crimson imagery so prevalent here.
“The Plague,” with its frantically looped tabla, is one of the few moments of explosive, propulsive energy on this otherwise fairly restrained affair. “I don’t know who I am” Hval wails, breaking the spell of the tabla’s rhythm, dragging the song into increasingly dark, aurally strident territory. “Last night I took my birth control with rosé,” she states flatly, the track beginning to fragment and fracture before climaxing in an extended, unintelligible passage of hellacious shrieks and wailing that dissolves into a sound akin to fire consuming everything it envelopes. At six minutes, it’s the most demanding listen, refusing to deign to the commonplace or expected in favor of wildly variant mood swings.
Paradoxically both accessible and alienating, Blood Bitch remains willfully enigmatic and unshakably fascinating in its atmospheric abstraction. As with the best of her solo and collaborative work, Hval’s latest album marries the prurient with the pure to create a whole of ugly beauty that’s as rivetingly gorgeous as it is unsettlingly dark. This is music that demands much from the listener, refusing to easily cede its secrets. Those with the patience and tolerance to invest the time will find themselves richly rewarded.