Contemporary pop culture teems with unfiltered first-person narratives and cathartic self-exposure, from search-engine-optimized “it happened to me” essays to the highbrow family memoirs of authors like Maggie Nelson. At its worst, the form is trashy; at its best, it can convey ideas that extend far beyond the confessor, tapping into something both intensely intimate and universally political.
The avant-garde Norwegian singer Jenny Hval pulls off this feat with a rare grace, layering prose poems, both spoken and sung, over synths, pulsing house rhythms, and noise-rock fuzz. Where Hval’s last studio album, Apocalypse, Girl, served as a withering feminist commentary on the sexual politics of American consumer culture (sample lines: “I beckon the cupcake/The huge capitalist clit”; “I grab my cunt with my hand that isn’t clean”), Blood Bitch, out September 30, deconstructs the menstrual cycle, the aging body, and the symbiotic relationship between lovers, vampires, and prey.
“Before [we decided on] vampires as a theme, blood was more the concept — in one sentence it can mean a severed limb, in the next it can mean menstruation,” Hval says via Skype from Oslo, where she is preparing for a U.S. tour. The result of her exploration is deeply personal. “I think there’s a lot of potential in the confession that’s happening on social media, but I’m not interested in confessing anything in particular,” she says. “It’s more about the act of giving, and how that feels — how I desire others to feel about it.”
At 36, Hval has already mastered the art of making her listeners uncomfortable, with graphic references to sex and the body delivered in a hypnotic, feminine alto that’s impossible to ignore. Now she seems ready to break new ground. “Everyone talks about Jenny’s music being explicitly feminist or concerned with being a female,” says Zia Anger, an American filmmaker who’s worked with Hval on several music videos. “But her work, to me, first and foremost reads as an experiment with pop culture. This is supposed to be pop music, but she’s subverting our experience of it.”
Hval says she’s always felt somehow “other.” She started her musical career as a teen goth-metal singer, then sang in a couple of folk and rock bands while studying creative writing and performance in Australia in her twenties. She eventually developed her current arty style on two records released under the pseudonym Rockettothesky. Her songwriting has retained an experimental, conceptual quality — think Björk meets Dry-era PJ Harvey in a graduate theory seminar —but on Blood Bitch she reveals herself as a more nuanced artist, less interested in shocking us with tales of soft American bananas and various uses for her electric toothbrush (much-cited topics from her last album) than in setting a contemplative mood.
Blood Bitch also has a sprawling, cinematic quality, which makes sense, since, according to Hval, “very simple, badly made, cheaply made horror and vampire films from the Seventies” were on heavy rotation during the album’s recording. “I love this lo-fi filmmaking where every location looks like a hotel room,” she says. The budgetary and spatial constraints of these films, she adds, can actually spark creativity: “The ‘I don’t care if the [fake] blood is pink today’ attitude…appeals to me because it drives you to make stuff with its manic energy.”
That energy comes through clearly in conversation with Hval: She speaks in a flurry of sentence fragments, and her curiosity seems insatiable. Hval’s reading list wouldn’t be out of place on an n+1 editor’s bookshelf in Brooklyn. “I’m trying to get through The Art of Cruelty by Maggie Nelson,” she says. “I love Chris Kraus. Anne Carson was a huge influence on me when I was nineteen. And when I’m onstage, I think of an Eileen Myles poem: ‘I have a confession to make/I wish there were/Some role in society/I could fulfill/I would be a confessor.’ ” She adds, “I feel like a confessor onstage, but I feel like it’s a creative confession.”
Hval’s brand of feminism, then, feels very of the moment. Nelson’s The Argonauts, a bite-size amalgam of personal history and theory, was widely cited as one of last year’s finest books; Myles and Kraus have both enjoyed a resurgence in popularity after younger feminist thinkers began to celebrate their willingness to go there, not just intellectually, but emotionally. Blood Bitch‘s standout track, “Conceptual Romance,” borrows the term “abstract romanticism” from Kraus’s feminist classic, I Love Dick (recently made into an Amazon pilot by Transparent director Jill Soloway). “My heartbreak is too sentimental for you,” Hval sings on that track, echoing one of the points Kraus makes in her book: Over-the-top expressions of female emotion can be radical precisely because no one wants to hear them.
“I’m inspired by writers who combine a great respect for academic ways of thinking with a vulnerability and a respect for qualities in humans that have been considered female and shameful,” Hval explains. Some of her most powerful work has to do with taboos concerning women: She isn’t shy in her depictions of menstrual blood, for instance; one lyric memorably observes that periods smell like “warm winter.” But she acknowledges the frustrations of the first-person feminine role — both in art and in life — on a track entitled “Female Vampire”: “I’m so tired/Of subjectivity,” she sings. “I must justify/My presence by losing it.”
Blood Bitch was recorded in a single Oslo studio over the course of several months last year. Hval plays all the instruments on the album (she usually has multiple collaborators), and the only other person present was co-producer Lasse Marhaug, a noise musician and fellow Norwegian. (“We did a time lapse of a day in the studio,” Hval says wryly, “and it’s just two people looking into a computer screen.”)
The result is a collection of tracks that sound significantly bigger than the space in which they were conceived. “I think the one-room album allows for [expansiveness] because when you’re in that space it’s easier to find extremely focused energy,” Hval says. “Not having a lot of musicians’ input made it possible for me to go deeper and deeper into what I wanted with sound.”
You can hear this level of sophistication on such tracks as “The Plague,” which opens with a rattling drum, then segues into spooky poetry recited by Hval over a vampire-kitsch organ solo. Marhaug tells me over the phone that they added layers of sound and texture, in hopes of making the result as rich an experience as a movie. “If you listen closely you’ll be rewarded,” he says.
There are thematic layers as well. Blood Bitch ultimately reads as an exploration of growing older. “The vampire theme is about aging, but in a more existential way than looking at your body and wondering what to do about wrinkles,” Hval says. “This is about the endless body.”
Marhaug, who’s followed Hval’s career for years, says Blood Bitch could represent a turning point. “This is maybe her first album as an older artist,” he says. “There’s a freedom there. And I think her best albums are still ahead of her.”
“I’ve reached an ageless older stage which I quite enjoy,” Hval says of how she is perceived as an artist today. And yet, she adds, “I was always too old to be seen as young. I was never doing the type of music that was a young person’s lovely expression, so I just haven’t experienced that change.
“Or maybe,” she laughs, “I was always a vampire.”
Jenny Hval plays Le Poisson Rouge on September 30.