- by Andy Brown Rating:9 Release Date:2016-09-30 Label: Sacred Bones Records
While many musicians sing about the pleasures and pitfalls of sex and relationships it’s fair to say that no one does it quite like Jenny Hval. The Norwegian provocateur has been around for some time now but caught the attention of the wider populous with last year’s excellent, Apocalypse, girl LP; an eclectic and electronic exploration into sex, femininity and religion through what Hval labelled as “soft dick rock”. The subsequent live shows took on elements of performance art, Hval proving to be every bit the left-field, experimental pop-star that the album had suggested.
Recorded in the same studio in Oslo, Blood Bitch feels like a natural successor to Apocalypse, girl and continues to reveal Hval as an artist that refuses to be pigeon-holed. The central themes on this latest LP include vampires and menstruation, so we’re still a safe distance from anything you could call conventional. Yet the joy of Blood Bitch is its ability to fuse the complex and the accessible alongside the deep and the fanciful. This is a place where discussions around femininity and capitalism rub shoulders with imagery from 70’s horror films. This is the place where dissertations and old VHS copies of Jess Franco films collide. That’s a lot of ideas to express for a 36 minute album but it’s to Hval’s credit that the album never feels rushed or overburdened.
After the atmospheric, John Carpenter-esque drones of ‘Ritual Awakening’ have subsided we’re sucked into the darkly seductive electronica of ‘Female Vampire’. The song borrows its title from a Jess Franco exploitation shocker, a film about a vampiress who kills her victims through oral sex. The film was originally called The Bare Breasted Countess and probably isn’t going to feature in a list of 100 Greatest Films anytime soon.
It seems like unlikely source material for an artist like Hval (perhaps something you’d expect from Electric Wizard) yet it’s this trashy, exploitative influence that provides the starting point for a song that seems to be exploring themes of desire, objectification and loneliness. At the centre of it all Hval’s voice sounds wounded yet beautiful as she sings the songs evocative mantra, “here it comes”.
‘In the Red’ starts as a musical continuation of ‘Female Vampire’ before turning into a sound collage of heavy breathing and panting and a declaration from Hval that “it hurts everywhere”. The beguiling ‘Conceptual Romance’ comes next, a gorgeous pop song that channels the ethereal electronica of Apocalypse, girl and provides a platform for one of Hval’s most affecting vocal performances. The song mixes imagery from Chris Kraus’s eccentric novel I love Dick with Hval’s trademark lyrical nakedness as she sings, “I can tell my heartbreak is too sentimental for you”. It’s absolutely stunning.
‘Untamed Region’ wonders further into experimental territory with a wash of found-sounds, melancholic keyboard notes and a ghostly, wordless vocal performance from Hval. Further on, the recorded voice of UK film maker Adam Curtis announces, “it sums up the strange mood of our time when nothing really makes any coherent sense”. Hval then goes on to talk about having “big dreams” and “blood powers”. Not many artists I can think of could follow up a chorus-centred pop song like ‘Conceptual Romance’ with something so strange; then again not everyone’s Jenny Hval.
‘The Great Undressing’ is a dark wash of synth-lines and heavenly drones as Hval sings about the parallels between capitalism and unrequited love while telling us that she is “self-sufficient, mad and endlessly producing”. When she whispers “because I love you”, softly into the headphones in the songs final moments you can feel the intimacy and vulnerability that makes Hval’s undeniably experimental work so very human.
‘Period Piece’ brings beats and looped vocals alongside cut-up imagery of IKEA and doctor’s offices. There’s a clear pining for love and connection here that makes the album such a quietly passionate listen. ‘The Plague’ comes next and takes things in a darker, more confrontational direction. The track momentarily manages to align Hval with the likes of Throbbing Gristle; reverb, disjointed vocals and, at one point, unintelligible screaming make up a strange, surreal and mildly terrifying six-minutes.
Relative calm is re-established with the dreamy drift of ‘Secret Touch’ where Hval tackles freedom, desire and death while singing about “kissing through a glass window/passion separated by space”. There’s no real chorus or hook to latch onto but the song pulls you into a melancholic and magical world all of its own.
The sci-fi electronics and oscillations of ‘Lorna’ bring proceedings to a thoughtful close as Hval ruminates on desire and the limits of language, “I don’t think anyone ever talked to me using the word desire at all”. Then, in a flash, it’s all over. Blood Bitch delivers on numerous levels, offering some of Hval’s most beautiful songs besides some of her most challenging work.
It may be clichéd to say but this is the kind of album that really grows on you, blossoming with every listen as the lyrics and subtle musical shifts become more apparent. It’s certainly an album that requires your full attention. Blood Bitch brims with sexuality and philosophy while retaining a wry smile and glint in its eye that means it never feels overly serious or laboured. It’s a resounding success and quite possibly a contender for album of the year.
Great review Andy. I was so disappointed with her reticence and 'between songs' ramblings when I saw her in Sydney. I guess I assumed she'd be assertive and descriptive in real life but she's much more delicate and shy. Her intelligence really...
Great review Andy. I was so disappointed with her reticence and 'between songs' ramblings when I saw her in Sydney. I guess I assumed she'd be assertive and descriptive in real life but she's much more delicate and shy. Her intelligence really shines through in her work though. Great artist.
I thought she was fantastic live, a real performer and it worked so well in the small pool room at the Brudenell. Got her first album under her own name, Viscera, a bit ago and really enjoying that too