Note: NPR’s First Listen audio comes down after the album is released. However, you can still listen with the Spotify playlist at the bottom of the page.
If Jenny Hval’s music is the bramble, her message is the Disney castle nestled (or, depending on perspective, trapped) inside. The experimental singer-songwriter surrounds her vulnerable voice and razor’s edge lyrics with spiky, disarming instrumentation and production that work to both belie and bolster the intensity and intimacy of her work. Blood Bitch, Hval’s sixth album, is her first that offers a sword for cutting through the thorns.
The production, with Lasse Marhaug, sometimes decentralizes Hval’s voice. On “Female Vampire,” Marhaug and Hval build a sonic house of mirrors in which vocals bounce brightly from high to low and soft to loud. This seems like the direction this album will take: immaculate, fairly incomprehensible avant garde electronic pop. But the true clues to Hval’s intent come, it turns out, immediately before and after “Female Vampire.” The last line of album opener “Ritual Awakening” is “I get so afraid / So I start speaking,” and the only lyrics on track three, “In the Red,” are, “It hurts / Everywhere.” Blood Bitch, in both name and tone, does not aim for immaculacy — it aims for impact. Highly-produced electro-pop songs are followed by the sounds of frantic breathing, or the scratch of a pen on paper, or a scream trapped in the infinite loop and distortion of a bell jar. There is never a question that a human being is operating all these machines. “The Great Undressing” claims that this record “is about vampires,” but it’s too rooted in Hval’s own body to be mystical. If she’s writing about vampires, she’s not writing about the fabled unfeeling undead. She’s writing about dealers in all things hidden and dark and vital, and sometimes covered in blood.
Hval’s feminism and her interests (both musical and scholarly) in gender and sexuality continue to factor into this album, as they have in her past work. The urgency and directness with which she confronts them, though, are new. She incorporates periods, speculums and birth control into her lyrics, which are sometimes sung, sometimes spoken and always direct as a harpoon. There’s a palpable lack of pretense or distortion to Hval’s linguistic faculties here, which is a change from her earlier, more theoretically dense projects. The choppy, almost gasping style of delivery she uses across Blood Bitch sounds like it could be completely spontaneous, or could be predetermined to the point of agony. The overall effect is that she’s chasing her ideas; like she’s not entirely in control of the process of choosing them. This record is only superficially about the supernatural. At its core, it’s an unmistakably human cross-section, and Hval’s great asset is her ability to turn an X-ray into a wonder cabinet. Emily Dickinson named this gift perfectly, 100 years before Hval was born: She tells all the truth, but tells it slant.