What does “weird” mean as applied to music? Tonal shifts? Oddball lyrics? Shrieking? Moaning? Blips and beeps? Unusual sampling? Grinding sounds of trash compactors? The definition is unclear to me, but what is clear is the fact that regarding Norwegian musician Jenny Hval there is a certain sameness in reviews of her albums, perhaps as a result of uncertainty over how to describe it exactly. Inevitably the reviewer will refer to her feminist ethos, the Avant-garde, her obsession with the body, and in terms of Blood Bitch, her latest effort, the reviewer will reference 70’s horror films, menstruation and finish with a stroking kind of “positive” review that inevitably leaves the reader scratching his/her head. However, these are all just words attempting to describe an experience. As Elvis Costello said, “Writing about music is like dancing about architecture.” In the case of such a inimitable artist as Jenny Hval, I would take this one step further and argue that writing about Hval’s music is like architecturing about haute cuisine.
There are downsides aplenty with Facebook and other social media platforms. However, one upside: the various music group pages where it is easy to simply share music and talk about it. My favorite of all of these pages—a group started by a college buddy of mine and fellow music freak—has turned me on to loads of music I otherwise would have ignored or dismissed previously. Even as catholic in musical dispersal as satellite radio usually is very rarely, if ever, do I hear Jenny Hval. She’s too “weird” or uncategorizable for even the Indie stations perhaps. Maybe when satellite radio starts a Laurie Anderson or spoken word channel, this will change. So this review of Blood Bitch is in a way my Jenny Hval challenge—like the ice bucket challenge, but much more dangerous.
After listening to much of Hval’s discography I’ve concluded that Blood Bitch is her strongest album to date. This is a bold admission in that her album Viscera contains perhaps her catchiest and most propulsive single, “Blood Flight,” among others. Blood Bitch, however, is perhaps the most cohesive album; it is of a whole. The opening track, “Ritual Awakening” is, I have to admit cinematic, a kind of widening prelude filled with synth-based expectation. The lyrics are all death and smart phones. The second track, “Female Vampire,” however, is quite tuneful and builds on echoes, rippling keyboards and a kind of low bleating horn sound that builds to a pressing immediacy. It’s a terrific song. What is it “about?” That is less clear, as Hval’s refrain—“Here it comes”—never, of course, clarifies what “it” is. The strobe-light and sweat video only muddies matters. Is the song literally about the search for blood or is “it” something closer to the sexual realm? Hval’s whispering lyrics at the song’s conclusion don’t help clarify: “winter air between,” “the smell of Spanish wetlands.”
“In the Red” cuts to fast panting sound (the bitch motif) with a buzzing, insect-like underlay—this goes on for two minutes, disconcerting to say the least. “It hurts everywhere” are the only lyrics. This panting motif is picked up later in the album (see below). Next up is “Conceptual Romance,” one of the longest and comeliest tracks on the album. The song is interesting, layered listen and closer to “normal” than perhaps some of Hval’s “talkier” songs. In a song like “Conceptual Romance” the listener can really hear the influence of Kate Bush and perhaps even Jane Siberry. Without delving into too many background specifics, perhaps the title refers to an actual romance, or more likely, a romance of the musician with her music.
The second half of Blood Bitch is based on spoken word tactics and employs more samples and dissonance than the first half. The fifth song on the album, “Untamed Region,” is a slow crawl initiated with the panting bitch motif (though it could also be staccato scriblings). At any rate, Hval doesn’t sing in this work, she only speaks. I like that. There is something very 70’s about songs that have the gumption to sidestep singing altogether. “Untamed Region” is a kind of short story that ends (spoiler alert) with the speaker dipping her finger in a puddle of blood she finds in the bed of an ill-omened hotel, unsure if it is hers or not. Then she does some blood finger painting and wants to touch and smell everything in the room. The song is not for everyone, but it works for me thematically and otherwise—or perhaps I just have a finely honed sense of irony.
Unfortunately, some of the songs in the latter portions of this album are more all-over-the-place. “The Great Undressing,” in particular, is too tongue in cheek and shifting, and less focused. I personally like a song with talking and spoken-word, but this one is less interesting than some of Hval’s other numbers that tap into this terrain. Trippy and atmospheric, “Period Piece” is still a bit too slight for me and seems somewhat unfinished compared to the mature-sounding numbers on the early part of the disc.
“The Plague,” is perhaps the eeriest song on the disc, with rapidly shifting tones, and a crazy-quilt of samples, echoes and other various interruptions. Perhaps this is what “weird” sounds like? In “The Plague” Hval also returns to another motif in this album—a kind of dripping sound that crops up in other songs in unexpected moments. “Secret Touch,” the penultimate track is more traditional, and tuneful—a kind of meditation on death and loneliness, whereas the final track is a short number about desire and sex ending with—appropriately—a question: “Does anyone have any language for it? Can we find it?” Hval is at a loss for words, also, it seems.
To me what is striking about Jenny Hval’s work in Blood Bitch in particular is her dedication to the concept album—in this way she’s an old soul. Unlike so many other musicians who focus on one or two hit singles, Hval thinks about the entire album as a whole and the careful listener will realize she interweaves carefully, giving quite a bit of thought to the work as a sonic whole. Whatever interlocking themes you hear present in the lyrics are also worth noting; Hval is of the poet-who-sings school. In addition, Hval’s attention to the synth soundscapes in her work is another an underrated quality of musicality. Like Pink Floyd, Peter Gabriel or Kate Bush Jenny Hval’s albums have a way of enveloping the listener and creating an aural world for immersion.
In addition, and this cannot be underestimated–Hval has charisma. Her work is so unusual you simply cannot look away. Her music itself is strong but as a live performer she seems to really up the ante. Though I have not seen her live, what I have seen online is impressive (and perhaps a lot of her “weird” rep comes from the visuals as much as from the music itself). Hval is a kind of performance artist in the spirit of Laurie Anderson and company. However, Hval still has room to grow. She is at her best when her songs are more organic and less forced. For instance, in Big Science by Laurie Anderson, the “oddities” never eclipse the songsmanship, but rather it all feels a part of the whole. Form meets function. In “Blood Vampire” and “Conceptual Romance,” a melody accompanies Hval’s embrace of the more outlandish side of her sound investigations, however, this at times dissipates in latter portions of the album. As good as Blood Bitch is, if Hval can maintain the high quality of the first five songs throughout the entirety of her forthcoming albums, she will truly be a force of nature, not only a force to be reckoned with.