Concept albums are tricky. Honing in on a singular narrative or theme throughout a 40 minute collection of music requires precision and tact from an artist, an ability to carry an idea throughout without allowing it to devour every other facet of the record. Norwegian experimental-artist Jenny Hval has, over the course of about a decade, built a collection of albums under varying monickers with roots stretching into concepts of sexuality, the human body, sociology, gender and mortality all the while allowing her music to be captivatingly nuanced and enticing; she knows how to make a concept album. Her last LP, 2015’s Apocalypse, Girl, was a banquet of observational lyricism on those themes, tackling them with unabashed wit and without a hint of sugar-coating, all to the tune of menacing organs, trip-hop rhythms and masterful vocal trickery.
Recorded only months after the release of Apocalypse, Girl, this new collection for Sacred Bones, Blood Bitch, takes the conceptual, aesthetic nature of both Hval’s lyricism and music and veers further into the abstract. Building the album on images of vampires, blood and 70s cult horror flicks, she explores the theme of menstruation, the absurd social taboo that still surrounds it, as well as a host of related and unrelated ideas and mythologies. The album’s further venturing into musical abstraction gives it an almost Guernica-like quality, its meanings and symbols chopped and rearranged chaotically, making their impact on the listener a fervorous, if unexpected one; felt rather than understood.
It begins with the dense, windy synths of ‘Ritual Awakening’, its haunting waves adding a darkness to the first of several lyrical moments on this album that are as brief as they are rich: “I clutch my phone with my sweaty palm. In my hand I clutch my heart and a coffin for my heart.” This moves into ‘Female Vampire’, a pulsing, hypnotic dance that uses the question of vampiric eternal life/eternal death to look at the body’s primal, restless desires and constant state of happening.
‘In the Red’ is the first instance we get on this album of Hval’s penchant for harnessing her voice and altering it in a visceral way. Building the track on the looped sound of panicked hyperventilation we hear her cry out, anguished into the void before saying “It hurts… everywhere”. Those words landing after the two minutes of build up creates an effective sonic projection of the oncoming period pains. Like on many a hip-hop record, Hval’s use of this sort of precise, blunt fragment gives Blood Bitch its context and allows the more distanced musical points to retain the overall thematic value while remaining beguiling in their own right. These segments are scarcely different from The Fugees going to grab Chinese food in The Score, Kendrick’s speech in ‘i’, Frank Ocean’s friend’s mother warning against drug use in ‘Be Yourself’.
‘Untamed Region’ with its drowsy keys and haunting cries is a piece in two halves; the first of which features a section from an Adam Curtis monologue on constant contradiction, instilled confusion (“It sums up the strange mood of our time, where nothing really makes any coherent sense”). The second half is a spoken word illustration by Hval about waking up to realise her period has come and the “blood powers” it awakens with it. The blood on her bed becomes something much more than just that, it is symbolic of life and of death simultaneously, of fertility and the transience thereof, of youth and of ageing.
Never without humour however, Hval’s spoken snippets in the album also give Blood Bitch a sense of levity and reminder that these are all themes that she is playing with as an artist after all. The songs are still there to be enjoyed in themselves. ‘The Great Undressing’ begins with a dialogue…
“What’s this album about, Jenny!?”
“It’s about vampires… Well it’s about more things than that but…”
“That’s so basic!”
From there it becomes one of the album’s most pleasing tracks with an ‘Everything in its Right Place’ keyboard throb and the majesty of her voice at the forefront, controlled and luxuriant. ‘The Plague’ opens with frantic tribal percussion before Hval enters with a playful, perplexing oration, “Last night I took my birth control with rosé. . . Keep that birth under control!” It goes on to become an experiment in raw noise, radio static, dripping liquid (blood?), and feral screaming, giving the vampiric, horror film basis of the record pride of shelf while maintaining a standalone rhythmic intensity reminiscent of Swans‘ To Be Kind.
‘Conceptual Romance’ and ‘Secret Touch’ are Blood Bitch‘s ear-worms, with Massive Attack reminiscent percussion and strings propping up intricate, addictive vocal play. ‘Period Piece’ then takes that tantalising tunefulness and brings some of the album’s biggest questions to culmination, opening the with a worrying vision of a period as some kind of “failure” but assuredly concluding, “Don’t be afraid, it’s only blood”.
Jenny Hval’s most nuanced and obscure work to date has managed to retain an incredible accessibility despite its abstraction. Rich avant-pop melodies and intrigue make this an album that is impossible to shy away from even at its most disquieting points. There are few artists with the same reach today who could make anything like it; a pop album that turns bodily function and social taboo on its head, all wrapped in the shroud of vampire movies and sardonic comedy. Few artists would come close to even trying. Eoin Murray