Thursday, December 22, 2016

album review: 'blood bitch' by jenny hval

It's often considered one of the great contradictions of American popular culture that for as much it worships at the altar of violence and the military industrial complex - and Canada isn't that far removed, I'm not kidding myself here - everyone tends to get skittish around sexuality. You can have plenty of gore in your movie in your movies and still walk away with the PG-13, but show exposed breasts and you can expect the R, to say nothing of if you want to show a penis or vagina. Kind of amusing how parts of the entertainment industry gives a free pass to plenty of penis extensions that deliver death yet get antsy when confronted with the real thing.

Now music is a little different, mostly because you're not dealing with the image outside of the album art... but not that different. Let's get real, with rare exception the majority of modern music is a lot more comfortable talking about male sexuality than female, and even then it's often masked in innuendos or played as a tease. To actively dig into the fleshy, messy side of things, peel back the sensuality and bravado to get to something more primal but no less real, that's explored far, far less. And that's no surprise: for as much as some artists threw open the doors to openly embrace sexuality in their music, it's usually paired with a desire to make it sound accessible to an audience who isn't as comfortable, entice rather than get into the explicit details.

And then there's Jenny Hval - Norwegian singer-songwriter and experimental musician, while much of her music has been characterized by droning, oddly structured soundscapes full of weird experimental shifts - to say nothing of an odd pop sensibility that keeps creeping through - what's always caught my ear are the lyrics. And the best way to describe them is something akin to the inverted metaphor of the film Shortbus - usage of plainly sexual acts and language in order to say something more, rather than the other way around saying or doing something to imply sex. Of course, her themes and abstract writing have gone further than sex, but at the end of the day her music approaches the flesh-driven reality of sex with the sort of unrestrained frankness and language that for certain can startle and shock even the most sexually-comfortable and well-adjusted person. As such, her music for me has always required a concerted effort to fully contextualize and understand - one of the reasons this review is so late - but I have to say I was really looking forward to digging into Blood Bitch. Blending elements of 70s exploitation films, timetravelling and genderbending vampire iconography, and an acute focus on menstrual blood - seriously - into an experimental pop framework partially inspired by the drones of Norwegian black metal and produced by noise musician Lasse Marhaug, this was going to be the sort of trip that I expected to be challenging, but hopefully hugely rewarding. Was I right?

Well, in a way it was, but like always Jenny Hval threw a curveball with Blood Bitch that I wasn't expecting - granted, given the inspirations I described I'm not sure I could even describe what I was expecting, but not this. It's not even that it's an impenetrable release - once you put the time into reading through the lyrics and give it some serious thought, the themes materialize pretty quickly. And yet while I don't think any other tone or presentation would work for this sort of subject matter, it's also not exactly a sound that I like, certainly not as much as I want, and I have the strange feeling that Jenny Hval could have pushed these themes much deeper and darker that she ultimately did.

But before I get into that, we need to talk about how those themes and influences work, and friendly warning, even if you're familiar with Jenny Hval this will get weird quick. Firstly, any elements of exploitation are used to inform the aesthetic, not so much the content: percussion and dance beats that feel imported from forgotten goth rock soundtracks, with swell driven from muted organ tones and synths that feel chill and alien and distinctly cheaper than the material that got popular in the musical subgenre. It feeds into the seedy vibe that often informed those movies - and with the commitment to atmospheric depth and abrupt choppy transitions, it certainly reminds me way too much of the artsier side of that genre. And even if you're not familiar with exploitation, you've probably at least seen a taste of this on the indie film circuit: the auteur-driven projects that nearly always went too long and used splashes of gore and graphic sex to smuggle in complex, usually overwritten ideas - a little ironic, because I'd easily make the argument this is Jenny Hval's most concise and least graphic project in a while! It's not even as abrasive as I was expecting - sure, on 'Female Vampire' you get some smoldering guitar seething in the background, and 'The Plague' certainly has its moments of demented, distorted howling in the cut-up abstract that the song is, but this record can feel surprisingly tame.

And this definitely comes through in the second major thematic element of this project: vampires. And Jenny Hval makes a few major departures in her interpretation of the creations, first by a renewed focus on the eternity they must face and more importantly by raising questions of vampiric morality. Now let me assure you that this is far removed from Twilight comparison - these vampiric figures do hunt humans and don't shy away from the bloody, sexualized nature of these conquests - and that's because the key word here is desire. The vampires of Blood Bitch are the sort that have lived for centuries, having survived the ages by maintaining firm control of their desire, to the point where time has blurred into a continuum of fits and spurts of ravenous hunger - not so much time-travel but a life extended beyond most human comprehension. And yet this record isn't shy about painting another parallel - because midway through this record on 'The Great Undressing' the album breaks the fourth wall and shows Hval talking with her friends, describing the vampiric theme... and then the friends laughing at how 'basic' it seems to be. And the use of the word 'basic' is important beyond the modern colloquialism: Hval is focusing on a primal desire that lies at the root of her art, which like the cyclical nature of vampiric bloodlust also manifests as an uneven stream of spurts, with her brand of art deemed as grotesque paralleling the moments of succumbing to bloodlust and feeding. And thus it almost seems apt that the feminine menstrual cycle becomes the undercurrent and another layer to Hval's artistic pursuits - perceived as graphic and shocking to so many, but instead something natural and of the flesh, driven by the same uncontrollable flows of desire. There will be pain brought forth, either through menstruation, vampiric feeding, or the creation of art, but Hval also highlights the majority of said pain is felt by her and her alone - only in the case of the vampire is any actual harm wrought to others, and it's telling that is the element where the modern form of 'basic' most applies.

And yeah, this is a well-constructed idea, and I love how even among friends this discussion drives a wedge between her and those who are not uninhibited - and yet this is where things get tricky, and the metaphor starts to break down, because for as much as Hval strains against the strictures of morality and good taste that would censor her art - analogous to the same aversion to menstrual blood, and the fact that sterile sanitization is framed as cold and bleak is very telling here - vampires do in fact feed and prey on others, and intermingling that element into the blended metaphor doesn't entirely hold together across all three pieces. The art Hval might unleash free of archaic good taste can be disconcerting or hard to grasp - look at the fragmented and careening nightmare of 'The Plague' - but despite moral objections vampires still do feed. And that brings up a question of tone: I get removing moral stigmas surrounding sexuality and menstruation and even art, but when Jenny Hval adds in the vampiric element, instead of bringing the lurid elements more to the forefront to heighten the intensity and force a tougher moral question, she seems to hold all of it at arm's length. Hell, on 'Conceptual Romance' she mentions this sort of abstraction, using it to blur more of the lines than ensure a sound thematic parallel all the way. And yeah, I get why it was done - muddying the waters enough to push away stigmas towards art and the female cycle - but not only does it undercut any attempted moral complexity in the parallel but it also removes the impetus to make the songs hit with more impact. Oh, don't get me wrong, this is probably the closest Jenny Hval has ever come to pop song structures with verses and a hook, and I definitely dig the darkwave and goth rock inspired synths and atmosphere, from the more aggressive grooves of 'Female Vampire' and 'The Great Undressing' to the deeper swells and echoing darkness behind 'Conceptual Romance' and 'Period Piece' - but if you were looking an excuse for more visceral production or delivery to back up those pop structures, that doesn't quite materialize, which can leave some of these pieces feeling a bit unsupported or underproduced. And that's not counting some production choices that just didn't really work for me: 'In The Red' features the sort of panting interlude that could either represent running or aggressive sex and I think it comes a tad early, especially when two songs later on 'Untamed Region' we get the sounds of a pencil scratching that continues until the sampled monologue from Adam Curtis that also runs long - and while I've already talked about how intentionally jarring 'The Plague' is, what caught me more off-guard was how compressed and thin that fizzy beat was on 'Secret Touch'. 

But to circle back, one thing I noted about this record is an undercurrent of increased confusion and uncertainty, from Curtis' monologue about contradicting news narratives to the lyrics on 'Lorna' which raises questions about how one ever deals with that desire and craving, be it a newborn vampire hunting for blood, an artist refining their craft, or a woman understanding her sexuality. And Jenny Hval does a striking job in highlighting the costs of that confusion... and yet there's a certain irony that thematically this record itself doesn't resolve. Don't get me wrong, you can tell through the writing that these themes and parallels were carefully considered, but there's a part of me that thinks this could have been a much more striking project if it actually became more transgressive, or kept the thematic parallels more streamlined. How one would do that - harder hitting songs, sharper writing through the lulls, even a few more songs given that this record does feel a little short for the complexity of its ideas - that's up to debate, but as it is... look, it's not really resonating with me more deeply. As such, I'm giving Blood Bitch an extremely strong 6/10 and a recommendation, but I've liked her earlier projects a fair bit more, from the religious iconography running through Apocalypse, girl to the more starkly sexual and provocative elements of Innocence Is Kinky and Viscera. I definitely get why people like it, and I do appreciate what it's trying to do... but as it is, I'm not sure it's for me - sorry.

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