Review: Jenny Hval, Blood Bitch

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Conceptual albums are a rarity these days. The closest music gets to literature, they try to depict a very specific reality or fantasy, even sometimes a mood. They not only offer a story — they must also possess an interesting way of telling it. After all, music is not about lecturing the listener. It’s about unveiling emotion and interpreting life. When it comes to forming a narrative and adding music to it, things can get interesting.

Norwegian artist Jenny Hval knows this. Her music, a confluence of protest — feminism, identity politics and anything resembling a post-Tumblr aesthetic these days — and alt-pop, has always revolved around experience. The experience of being a woman, sex and intimacy and, most importantly, the body, one of her greatest obsessions, musically speaking. In order to tackle these themes under a better light, Hval coined the term “soft dick rock.” Speaking to Pitchfork last year, she mentioned how she didn’t say it because she “wanted to define anything,” but that “it’s just pleasurable to say. It’s some kind of poetry.” “Soft dick rock,” then, is all and nothing at the same time. It is a concept in itself — its references are never-ending.

Blood Bitch, her new album, mulls over a gender-specific aspect of one’s life. Throughout the album, Hval denounces the myths surrounding menstruation, its history and stories — the way we see it, the way women themselves tackle the blood once naturally shed. In “Period Piece”, she assures: “Don’t be afraid, it’s only blood”. “Untamed Religion” displays the album’s general discourse more blatantly: “The next morning I wake up and there is blood on the bed”.

Everything here, of course, requires aural context, which is provided by noise artist Lasse Marhaug, who worked previously with Hval in last year’s Apocalypse, Girl. Sonically, things do not change that much: she still presents her themes unabashedly, showcasing little concern for form. The sound does not seem to be a big preoccupation, not even melody — beauty in Blood Bitch is a luxury. What is important here is the message, that is, the conceptual lecture on femininity, periods and the history of menstruation.

This is why Blood Bitch is better read than actually listened to. Jenny Hval offers us ten songs worthy of progressive and transgressive pop that do little to actually transcend their primary objectives. “What’s this album about, Jenny?”, a random voice asks in “The Great Undressing”, to which Hval replies, “It’s about vampires!”, until she acknowledges Blood Bitch has to be more than that.

Eventually, the album reaches that transcendence. “Conceptual Romance” is perhaps Blood Bitch’s only track in which Hval finds the perfect balance between concept — her detailed study on periods and a generalized female experience — and music. The result is actual expression.

Ultimately, most of Blood Bitch consists of plain sound design. In the end, there is a message lying here somewhere — the acknowledgement of menstruation, its history and the evolution of how it is perceived — but one could wonder if calling this pop music is actually accurate. That said, Blood Bitch commits the ultimate crime of all so-called concept albums: there is undeniable effort in the subject and story it was supposed to tell, but little magic in the execution. C PLUS