On her sixth album, acclaimed Norwegian conceptual artist Jenny Hval explores the taboo of menstruation. By her own admission, it’s her most fictional and most personal record to date, filtering stark reality through the surreal lens of ‘70s horror cinema. April Clare Welsh examines the themes behind one of the year’s most exceptional albums.
Jenny Hval’s latest album is an investigation of blood. “Blood that is shed naturally. The purest and most powerful, yet most trivial, and most terrifying blood. Menstruation,” explains the Norwegian artist. Evoking a time when women were witches, vampires existed, and werewolves bayed at the moon, Blood Bitch conjures centuries of falsehoods and myths about menstruation – did you hear the one about menstrual blood corroding the penis?
But periods are not a myth; they are real and messy and painful and Hval scatters warts-and-all reminders throughout her album. “Don’t be afraid, it’s only blood,” she reassures in ‘Period Piece’, a song that swells with quasi-devotional voices, while she describes speculums and pelvic exams. “The next morning I wake up and there’s blood on the bed / Didn’t know it was time yet,” Hval says in ‘Untamed Religion’, her voice steely and crystal-clear, before asking, “or is it not mine?”. With echoes of Carrie – where the 17-old-year titular protagonist is humiliated by her peers after unknowingly experiencing her first period – the song toys with a similar idea of innocence and naiveté. Hval is both in tune and out of sorts, like so many teenagers navigating that bodily change.
Hval co-produced Blood Bitch with Norwegian noise veteran Lasse Marhaug and at its core the album is a tightly-coiled exercise in avant-pop, with swathes of feedback and drone providing the backdrop for Hval’s literary cut-ups. Built from the sound of heavy rhythmic panting, ‘In The Red’ platforms a primal scream that could shake the leaves from the trees but the dubby intro is in thrall to a cool musicality. Elsewhere, melodies shine through the conceptual themes – the bubbling, glacial synths of ‘The Great Undressing’ flood the senses with an enveloping sense of calm, while opener ‘Ritual Awakening’ is poised on a billowing tornado of electronics, clearing the air for Hval’s abstract vocals to take the stage. It’s a soothing antidote to the enduring pain of cramps and sanitary towels.
But for all this talk of periods, Blood Bitch cannot easily be reduced to a linear narrative about menstruation. For example, ‘Female Vampire’ – wherein the album’s central character, a time-travelling vampire inspired by ‘70s horror tropes, resides – is so much more than a gimmick. Like the rest of the album, Hval layers knotty ambiguities and intellectualisms that we get to untangle slowly. Her lyrics are complex and thoughtful, tied up with gender theory and sexual psychology and drifting fluidly between fantasy and reality.
As impenetrable as this might sound, the world needs Blood Bitch. The world needs an album that even attempts to shatter the myths and highlight the everyday realities of menstruation. The UK’s awkward debate about whether a tax should remain on tampons – a compulsory hygiene product – may have finally arrived at its long-awaited conclusion, but period pain unfortunately remains a taboo subject. Hval may be working in conceptual art, but she has opened a dialogue that will resonate with women everywhere.
April Clare Welsh is on Twitter.