BLOOD PERMEATES our lives and elicits a wide range of reactions: horror, fascination, pain, nausea, relief. We fear violent bloodshed, but are entertained when campy horror movies cartoonishly grind someone into a bloody paste. Having blood drawn can make you squeamish, yet the bloody water running into your shower drain is just another monthly occurrence, with drops of menstrual blood on the bathroom floor just another mess to clean up. When it comes to blood, context is everything.
“I have big dreams/And blood powers,” Norwegian singer, songwriter, and multi-instrumentalist Jenny Hval sings, or rather says, near the end of “Untamed Region.” The song, from her recent album Blood Bitch, depicts Hval’s character waking up in a pool of blood, unclear of its source or how to respond.
Hval is acutely aware of context. Through avant-garde pop, she is able to create accessible scenes where she explores complex, often taboo subjects. She sings about cunts, soft dicks, masturbation, and menstruation, but these words aren’t meant to shock you. Hval says she aims to “place [them] in a setting with melodies and elements of the beautiful, not as a contrast but as a way of opening up to seeing [the subject].”
She knew she wanted to make an album about blood, but says “the menstruation element came into the album via horror.” Blood Bitch is built around a vampire character, but not like those portrayed in contemporary TV shows or movies, since they’re often “stalkers and rapists and powerful men” (though Hval is a fan of Buffy). Instead, it’s the ’70s vampire flicks of Spanish director Jess Franco that resonate with Hval, who says they “opened up a lot of absurd, surrealist space in my mind to make connections between things like horror films and menstruation, and various other things—vampires and zombies.”
Franco’s work turned out to be a key influence for Hval, who studied film. “The low-budget element really connected to my own musical influences,” she says. “The actors are the same people in all the films, so it just feels like another song is being played.” Thinking of her own songs like scenes, Hval’s Blood Bitch is a narrative album that sprawls over 10 tracks, each one distinct but part of a continuum.
She played almost every instrument herself, and says the recording process was “very personal.” That’s how listening to the album feels; in all of her work, but especially Blood Bitch, Hval excels at creating language for intimate, seemingly inexpressible concepts.
“It’s a process of giving things value and power through art,” she says. “We have the phallus as this huge symbol, but we don’t have those fountains of menstruation blood in the same power, and I think that’s a shame.”
Hval assumes a reverential tone when discussing blood, menstruation, age, boredom, and desire, which courses throughout Blood Bitch. The album acts as a protective church where taboo subjects are hallowed and given room to breathe.
“There is reason for these themes to exist within art,” she muses. “You give them some kind of mystical power through music, some kind of sacred power that you then can’t just strip away.”