Like all of Jenny Hval’s releases, Blood Bitch is a short album of Big Ideas. The prism used to examine these themes is so common that just over half of the world’s human population goes through it, yet it’s something that almost never shows up in art thanks to histories of oppression. For centuries women have been both fetishised and demonised for bodily functions that work in tandem: reduced to vessels who are obliged to give birth at a man’s whim, yet the regular bleeding that allows this to happen (and unlike ideal situations for giving birth, is not optional) is dismissed as disgusting, or proof of some kind of inherent mental instability.
It’s added food for thought surrounding conversations about gender inequality, after a week where thousands of people marched through Dublin to support a woman’s right to bodily autonomy, and the possible first woman to take on the most powerful position in the world is dismissed by her opponent as not having the “look or stamina” for the role. For Hval to make an album about menstruation through the use of vampires is an acknowledgment that society tries to turn women into monsters, and that it is probably time to take ownership of that and change the meaning.
Art is meant to provoke, and while for some that means complaining about others being too sensitive for their off-colour and lazy jokes, at its best it means questioning what we can let slide without even giving it much thought. It doesn’t take much trawling through internet comment sections to find music fans who are made really uncomfortable by this record’s concept. For a listener equipped with the healthy amount of empathy, however, Blood Bitch is set to grow the heart of anyone who steps into Hval’s world, even if they have no first-hand experience of what she is writing about (full disclosure: I am a man).
Hval was influenced by the atmospheres created in underground horror cinema made in the 1970’s (“Many horror films contain really beautiful images, even if they’re grotesque…” she says here, and that combination of the uplifting and off-putting can be found throughout, particularly on ‘Untamed Region’ where she talks through the discovery of blood on her bed, and instead of embarrassment or anxiety, takes ownership of it in a primal way: “I feel a need to touch everything in this room. Like a dog I’m marking everything that belongs to no one.” ‘Period Piece’ tells the story of a visit to the gynaecologist, complete with speculum and the calming words “Don’t be afraid, it’s only blood”.
Throughout, there’s a near-steady but subtle low-end bass rumble while Hval layers her tracks with Gallo-like synths and percussion that rarely goes past a simple bass-drum. Hval’s vocals and songwriting, while not really pop-like in structure, are striking, particularly when she hits lyrical paydirt. The something-like-a-suite ‘The Plague’ has the memorable “Last night I took my birth control with Rosé”, for instance.
‘Conceptual Romance’ and ‘The Great Undressing’ are tales of desire and unrequited love that fit in to the album’s larger themes, as the character Hval inhabits struggles with a mindset that sees her self-worth as optional in the face of connection with someone who has/is likely to hurt her. The narrative reaches the peak at album’s end, where the female vampire biting another is a pure expression of desire.
Blood Bitch is one more sterling entry into Hval’s continuing interrogation of societal expectations of gender and sexuality, making a satisfying album for ambient avant-pop enthusiasts while avoiding the archness commonly expected of music made with near-academic intent. It’s an album that feels right and necessary for the time it was made in. There’s a sample from a BBC documentary halfway through the album, where the narrator says that we cannot create opposition because we “live in a state of confusion”, unable to create a coherent narrative of our own. Blood Bitch argues that this confusion is where the opposition can begin, once we recognise it.