If you prick us, do we not bleed? In the annals of humanity, blood is nearly always a marker of personhood, symbolically precious. But one kind of blood remains a taboo in Western society. Despite it marking something experienced by more than half the population with the regularity of clockwork, menstruation is spoken of only in hushed tones. On her latest album, Norwegian musician Jenny Hval, whose performance was a highlight of this year’s Sydney Festival, investigates the point of convergence between the two words that make up the album’s title – “blood” and “bitch.”
Hval’s music is both confrontational and profoundly abstract, though Blood Bitch may be her most direct and uncluttered work yet. It is built on warm clouds of keyboards, and rhythms that pulsate almost imperceptibly like heartbeats. Hval’s one-of-a-kind voice swings between secretive whispers and her distinctive siren’s wail that wraps around her idiosyncratic melodies with ease. There is a spectrality and a playfulness here that makes Blood Bitch her most intriguing and approachable work yet.
Blood at is the centre of the record – flowing through it – but it is surrounded by far more complex concepts and emotions that are harder to pin down. Femininity itself is under Hval’s gaze, as well as a kind of mystical animism and post-modern perspective on ways in which the primitive still lingers in the modern world.
The oneiric “Untamed Region,” narrates a dream in which Hval (speaking slowly and deliberately) marks her territory in the most literal sense, and in the following track, the sensual “The Great Undressing,” Hval explains to a bemused friend that the record is “about vampires,” capturing in that moment a very endearing openness and humbleness that belies the apparent radical nature of the record.
First single “Female Vampire,” emerges wreathed in fog from the eerie enclosure of the introductory “Ritual Awakening.” It’s a hunting song; goaded by the smell of blood, the titular vampire seeks her prey. It’s a clever and evocative play on the links between female sexuality and menstruation and the way they have been portrayed in the past. It’s like Carrie minus the shame and indoctrination - almost utopian. There is a coital haze around “Female Vampire” and later highlight, the brilliantly luminous “Conceptual Romance,” that is at once both delicate and unwavering.
Pieces like these contrast with the more anatomical concerns of this brilliantly focused concept record. “In the Red,” is a tangle of harried breathing and anguished wailing, the only intelligible lyrics “It hurts - everywhere,” but knotted somewhere in the pain is ecstasy. Later, the appropriately titled “Period Piece,” finds the song’s narrator in the stirrups, revelling in how connected she feels to her own body, and how unselfconscious of its processes. She sings over muted guitars and half-lit saxophone “Don’t be afraid. It’s only blood.”
Blood Bitch is quiet, almost unbearably private, but it shakes loose taboos in a brilliant and unflinching way. Its more experimental tendencies are tempered by its evocation of the warmth of intercourse, sisterhood, motherhood, self-love. It’s a radical feminist polemic that comes from the heart in the most literal sense. With Blood Bitch, Jenny Hval has created a timeless and groundbreaking masterpiece.
Blood Bitch is out on CD, vinyl and digital formats on Friday September 30th.