The legend- country bumpkin with hippie parents,
born to howl the blues- may be somewhat dubious, but the music, as evidence
on her extraordinary new album, is indisputabl the stuff of greatness.
Robert Christgau explores the life and art of PJ Harvey.
SINGER, SONGWRITER, AND QUONDAM GUITARIST POLLY JEA HARVEY has a 10:30 date with the Gavin radio convention at Tipitina's in New Orleans America's first taste of her handpicked international five-piece, which she bills PJ Harvey, same as the rough-and-tumble Yeovil guitar-bass-and-drums it replaces. Alternative commoners cram the downstairs, bizzers and radio muck-a-mucks filter up to the balcony, and Harvey won't show herself until 11:15, just late enough to work up a charge of expectation she plainly doesn't need. Having missed the '50s-look Rid of Me tour, I haven't seen her since her basic-black Dry days, whenan ascetic-looking young slip of a thing with no makeup and pulled-back hair quickly and
astonishingly established herself as the first important female rocker to play guitar better than she sang. And as a vocalist she was no slouch either, with the guts and smarts to correct for thin timbre by cultivating her physical and dramatic range- you never knew what would happen when she opened her capacious mouth.
This Polly Jean Harvey isn't any more likely a figure. But she's different. For one thing, she's
sworn off the guitar.
The boys in the band- Bristol-based buddy John Parish on guitar, eggheaded Guitar Player
editor Joe Gore ditto, Captain Beefheart-Pere Ubu legend Eric Drew Feldman the keybmaster,
audition winner Nick Bagnall doubling on bass and keyboards, and Parish chum Jean-Marc
Butty behind the drums- all wear formal-cum-hipster black-and-white. Their boss signals her status by coming on garish and gaudy, svelte and slinky, accentuating that mouth with a crimson slash of lipstick and slithering around in the red satin dress of the "Down by the Water" video. Without patter, intros, or shtick- an occasional brushback of her cunningly '40s-ish black fall is as close as she comes to a trademark gesture- she radiates performance savvy. And rather than imposing a deathly decorum, more opera lessons have put more muscle on the strapping, skillfully controlled instrument that dominates her fourth album, To Bring You My Love, the work of art she's here to unveil, celebrate, and promote. As much as I admire the "Wang Dang Doodle" on 1993's Man-Size EP, I wish I could hear what she'd do to Howlin' Wolf now.
Although the band is rehearsing some blues, it is not to be. For a while I think Harvey is about
to dare the untold feat of performing an entire unreleased album verbatim, cut by cut. Yet after
three consecutive unfamiliar songs- the audience-directed 'To Bring You My Love,""Meet Ze Monsta" a.k.a. "Big Black Monsoon," and the catchy if incomprehensible "Working for the Man"- the crowd's enthusiasm hasn't flickered. And while the vibe does flag on the bereft "Send His Love to Me," "Down by the Water" isn't the first single for nothing, and "Long Snake Moan" is an instant showstopper- an electromagnetic noo-blooze anthem that climaxes with a fortuitously New Orleans-friendly refrain of "It's my voodoo working." Finally, to much whooping and hollering, she sings something everybody knows- "Legs," from Rid of Me. And with a simple "I might as well be dead / But I could kill you instead," she is gone.
Since the show has lasted all of 35 minutes, Gavin-imposed, she firmly reports later on- I
assume like everyone else that this elegantly ferocious band will return for the monster encore it's primed me for. But soon heartfelt yays turn to pissed-off boos and disgruntled young ticket-buyers push out into the night. "Hasn't been here in two years and how long'd
she play for? Twenty minutes?" "Shortest concert I've ever heard in my life." "Maybe they're giving refunds." Nobody, however, will protest for the record. Artist at fault in some way? Affable guy: "Nah- blame the foreman. Blame the authority figure. Just like at work." Song selection? Frustrated gal: "I was ready to see everything. I've been trying to see her for like a year and a half." Set length itself? Gaga gal: "I guess it was pretty short. But I'm thankful
I heard her at all."
At 10:30 the next morning, I met 25-year-old Polly Jean Harvey in the lounge of her downtown megahotel for a 90-minute interview. Another had been promised for the following
week in L.A., before she brought her new band and look to the NARM convention down in San
Diego. This double dip put me among the elect. Fans aren't the only ones craving access to Harvey, who has stayed out of sight since the late-'93 4-Track Demos, her third album in a
year and a half, and who regards all promotion as "hard work, a lot harder work than I thought."
So the three-hour total was a concession, and if it had been less I guess I would have been
thankful to talk to her at all. No one, including the image-hawking young mediasuckers who
have long been a fixture of British pop, enters the maw of the publicity machine with much
grasp of how disorienting it is to have your picture in the papers all the time. But for Harvey it was a special shock. The bohemian-expressionist artistic tradition she comes out of honors the work of art and the true self it theoretically embodies and disdains all surrounding foofaraw. This is not someone who's about to churn out odes to Andy Warhol.
Not that she was ever exactly the fresh-faced country hippie you could read all about in '91
and '92, when she conquered Britain's pop press with the Too Pure singles "Dress"and "Sheela-Na-Gig" and debut album Dry. Since most beginners make the same mistake, I have
no doubt she was truly surprised to learn that once the music was public it wasn't hers
anymore: "I thought that people would think the same things that I thought about the songs when I
wrote them. It confused me, and then I found it quite amusing that people could read so much
into specific words that had meant so little to me at the time. Or vice versa- that something
that I thought had great weight to it people did not pick up on at all."
That took considerable time and suffering, however. At first the young expressionist just assumed that sincerity was her only option- that her mission was to be as naked in the media as
she was in her music. What's harder to accept as a spontaneous gesture is her literal interpretation of this quaint notion- on the back cover of Dry and the front cover of NME she
actually removed her clothes. Raise a fuss? Little old Polly? How could anyone think such a
Nevertheless, I was inclined to trust and respect her need to keep herself to herself. So what if
she's capable of provocation? If the simple fact that she's a performer doesn't tell you that, a
single listen to 4-Track Demos's "Reeling"- you know, "Robert De Niro sit on my face"- should
do the trick. It's not a ruse or an inconsistency that she can be, as she put it late in our L.A. meeting, both shameless and introverted - it's a tremendously fruitful contradiction, one of the
tensions that makes her music so compelling. Since not even 15-minutes-of-famers like it
when sex creeps and crazies ejaculate fan mail, when they can't buy a quart of milk without
strangers bothering them, when valued friends and starstruck acquaintances expect time they
just don't have anymore, it was a cinch that this far more traditional artist would try to put
maximum distance between her work and her private life. She'll never fully accept (if anyone
in her position does) that popular music inevitably tempts anyone who is moved by it to get a bead on the human being underneath. But she does have a right to expect that all but her most confused admirers- certainly journalists, who deal in these riddles for a living- will suss that her art is at the root of the seduction. Thus it's the art that finally matters. So not only didn't I consider it my prerogative to try and find out whether or not, for instance, she has a
boyfriend, I didn't much care.
And for what it's worth, I doubt she does right now. That's the interpretation most consistent
with To Bring You My Love, and it also jibes with comments she dropped in the course of
surprisingly searching, predictably abstract conversations that I was oddly flattered to be told were "like being on a psychologist's couch." She was always engaged, and softened her prim-cum-boho black-and-white with a fuzzy baby-blue top in L.A., but the closest she came to personal gestures was when she spooned the froth off the cappuccino that was all I saw her consume, and when she wrote the name of W.B. Yeats, of whom she had never heard, on the back of her thin, long-fingered hand. During our first interview she agreed that I could watch a rehearsal, but almost instantaneously her new manager- number three, Sheila Roche, an associate in the office of U2's Paul McGuinness- came over to explain that Polly just hadn't known how to say no, and I withdrew. I was sorry, though- not because I hoped to spy on 25-year-old Harvey treating seasoned sidemen like the "dictator" she avers and I believe she is, but because I wanted to understand her music better. As for her life itself, my main aim was to dig a little deeper
into the oft-recycled biography, based mostly on a sheaf of early clips, that I call "The Ballad of
PJ Harvey." In this tale, Polly, the unassuming daughter of two rustic hippies- a blues concert-producing Dorsetshire sculptress and her less prominently featured quarryman husband- emerges full-blown from the heads of the aforementioned Wolf and Beefheart (plus maybe Bob Dylan, who she covered on Rid of Me, or Patti Smith, who she only listened to
after reading said clips) to forge a punk(ish) rock of uniquely raw and/or female sexual
This is a useful myth, but there's stuff it doesn't account for. Bohemian affinities are always
damnably complicated. "I think my dad would protest to being a hippie," Harvey told me, while praising his draftsmanship and noting that there is considerable art to cutting stone. As for her mom, who's given up promoting except for an annual do with her bar-band friends Rocket 88, she finds much of her paying work doing gravestones and datestones, an exacting and honorable craft that isn't what most people think of as sculpture. Most important, the Harveys weren't as isolated in their tiny village as is usually assumed- they were part of an extensive network of art-loving, music-loving, nature-loving local artists, photographers, and sculptors, many of whom Harvey counts among her dearest friends, and many of whose children are now successful artists themselves. These are political people, yes, but mostly as regards the hot topic at the pub, and if some are on the left, many aren't. "For instance, my mom and dad are Conservative and loads of other people I know are too. Conservative artists, there you go. A lot of country people are; a lot of farmers are."
Her parents did impart their passion for R&B, and she did learn from the famous blues
musicians who would stay at her house. But while it's been said that her chief countervailing
musical influence was Top of the Pops, nearby Yeovil, a sizable market town of about 25,000,
provided a more significant alternative: the Electric Broom Cupboard, where hardworking
student Polly and her teenage friends would hang out and listen to music- "every other week,
it was a regular thing, there was really nothing else to do." The bands were mostly U.K. indies,
even more purist and insular than their U.S. counterparts, and young Polly joined two of
them: John Parish's percussion-oriented quintet Automatic Dlamini, in a two-year hitch that
included whirlwind, sleep-on-the-floor tours of Poland, East Germany, and Spain, and Andrew
Dickson's Bologna, in which she played saxophone, the only instrument she's studied (she now finds its sound "quite nauseating"). She also wrote lots and lots of songs, exactly one of which was featured by each band. And so she started her own- a duo with bassist Steve Vaughan. Drummer Robert Ellis and Too Pure would come soon enough. And so would the cover of NME.
Harvey had already set her sights on becoming an artist one way or another, perhaps a sculptor like her mom, except that she would study at a proper art school up in London. (A close-knit family, this- her brother is a quarryman like his dad.) But even as a four-year-old acting out "The Three Bears," she'd had a thing for performing- usually theater, which now that
she's a celebrity she'll likely try again. It was only natural that watching the bands at the
Electric Broom Cupboard she would repeat to herself the mantra that had animated hundreds of
thousands of rock'n'rollers before her: "I could do that, I could do that, I could do that." But
because Harvey grew up immersed in music and the very concept of the aesthetic, her
ambitions were less idle- and more competitive. "Often I thought the music that you'd go and hear was shallow, was silly. There was no soul to it, there was no feeling to it, and it just made me want to go up to people and shake them. And then there was so much of that feeling in blues music whether it was good or bad. That feeling, that roughness- there was more depth to the music that my mom and dad were putting on and I thought, 'Yeah, you can have both. You can be young and have this incredible guts to what you're doing. You can say strong things. You don't have to sing about the washing up or the kitchen sink- you can think about really important things in a very honest way.' "
There was nothing punk about the Electric Broom Cupboard or Top of the Pops or her parents' record collection, and only for a change of pace was PJ Harvey the power trio ever all that fast or basic. Its trademark device was the dramatic dynamics of Led Zeppelin's lingua franca, and as Harvey points out, its first singles were well-made pop songs, successful ventures in a craft she no longer worries about. On the other hand, the trio's unpolished musicianship and unregenerate ugliness owe indie's DIY ethos big-time. If Harvey snuck in the eccentric harmonies and extra beats you read about occasionally, she was no more aware of it than the country bluesmen who inspire the same kind of loose talk in ethnomusicologists- less, to hear her tell it. Sure she recognizes a chord when she hits on one, but that doesn't mean she knows its name. She insists that what makes her music go is emotion.
It should go without saying that women as strong as Polly Jean Harvey serve as role models whether they like it or not. But it's not just avoidance for her to tell anyone who'll listen that she doesn't conceive the emotion in her music as gender-linked, or to maintain that when she changes the register of her voice, a device her opera lessons have only intensified, it's instinctual: "I like singing low- it can change a song very much, can make things more demanding or more vulnerable or more something. On other songs I want to distort it, and sometimes I want to make it sound thin and tiny." Harvey understands that because she's a woman people will always hear gender in her voice, and acknowledges that at some subconscious level they could be right. But she claims that in the act of creation she's often not even aware of what sex she is. This stubborn
denial drives feminists nuts, and since she's equally stubborn about not saying what her lyrics mean, they're sane to feel that way. You don't have to be a riot grrrl to agree that if "Man-Size" ("Let it all, let it all hang out") and "50 Ft. Queenie" ("Bend over Casanova") aren't calculated genderfucks, nothing is.
Of course, many of her smartest feminist admirers would point out that Harvey's very admirers would point out that Harvey's very unawareness is a historical triumph- the ultimate goal, prematurely achieved in a society that's pretty much sexist as ever. They'd just appreciate some small show of solidarity. But it's not likely they'll get it. Harvey's basic artistic impulses are fundamentally apolitical, with no room for the social or the collective: "Music is a very spiritual thing. I let it happen and it happens. I can't always make it happen- sometimes it does just come and it kind of dictates how it should be, so I'm not consciously steering it in one way or another."
PJ Harvey was no punk band, but that didn't stop Steve Albini from recording it like one,
leaving Polly's voice be and milking her guitar for a cold, harsh, galvanized flatness. Yet 1993's Rid of Me is certainly her strongest album and quite possibly her best- every song has an edge that Albini couldn't have dulled if he'd wanted to, which for all his famous perversity he probably didn't. The songs were written after she'd fled London. She'd come up to the city not as an art student, as originally planned, but as a shy, hugely ambitious young rock'n'roller who thought at first that fame couldn't come "as fast as I wanted." But not only was she hopelessly stressed out by fame itself, she never took to London. Except for her roommate from back home she had few friends, and she still can't quite verbalize why. "I did have one boyfriend that grew up in the city and I just felt that we were so different in our approach to life." The people she met didn't need space the way she did. "They're tougher, they're tougher people. I'm not a very tough
person anyway. I am, but not in that kind of...they're quite mentally strong, tough people." The aggression level made her close up- "that fight or fly thing." She ended up with a near-breakdown and a therapist she still goes up to consult when things get bad- a drastic step
(and admission) for any Briton.
So although Rid of Me was written in a modest Dorsetshire flat and recorded in a dismal
Minneapolis studio, London is what it's about. Somebody else might have done more for the
tenderness you can sometimes peek glinting through the barbed wire. But spiritually, Albini
is perfect for its graphic lust, pain, and hostility. No record I've ever heard, blues included, is so
in touch with the carnal details that saturate our experience and memory of erotic love. And
don't kid yourself- these songs are never just about sex. The love is unusually desperate, and
maybe unusually young as well, although Harvey doesn't seem likely to thicken her skin
appreciably anytime soon. But it's definitely what's at stake.
"Do you associate sex with love?' I asked her.
From almost anyone else, To Bring You My Love would
seem erotically charged. "I've lain
with the devil," "We lay in it for days," "Blue-eyed girl become blue-eyed whore,"
"You want to hear my long snake moan," "What a monster / What a night / What a lover / What a
fight," "Let me ride / Let me ride / Let me ride"- these are sexual tropes. But after Rid of Me
they're clearly only abstractions, as Harvey acknowledges. "On Rid of Me, a lot of those songs, yes, they are about specific people- not one person, but specific people, relationships
that I had had up to that point in my life. Whereas I think that on To Bring You My Love, because I'm that much older, as a person I've kind of widened out as well, instead of tunnel vision on everything. Where did the tunnel lead? Not to anywhere good- my own backside. I was placing so much importance at that time in my life on relationships with the opposite sex, because it was a first....I was just growing up and suddenly this was all new. I'm a bit more old and jaded now- been there, done that- and I'm interested in other things as well, in overviewing life with a capital L."
So two years after her London album, Harvey has generated her Dorsetshire album- the
meditation of a febrile recluse who devotes her human energy to "hanging on for grim life to a
couple of friends that I care about and worry about losing," whose idea of a good time is to
tend the garden at the house she bought for cash (and which she'd like to sell so she can move
closer to her parents, now all of half an hour away). But if for almost anybody else life with
a capital L is a synonym for pomposity, this is a woman who's taken opera lessons and lived to
sing about it. On its own terms- established formally by the voice-dominated 4-Track Demos- To Bring You My Love is a triumph every bit as undeniable as Dry or Rid of Me. Say it's about love with a capital L multiplied by sex- or is that spirit?- with a capital S.
These days Harvey looks back on the trio's music and finds its ugliness irrelevant. Like
4-Track Demos, To Bring You My Love was originally laid down by Harvey alone at home,
but most of it was arranged on keyboards, a certain sign of encroaching gentility, and after it
was brought into a real studio for production that amounted to many weeks of overdubbing,
seven of the ten main guitar parts were ceded to Parish or Gore, both her superiors in sheer
sonic command. It was mixed and coproduced by Flood, who comes via Harvey's U2
connection, although she admires his work with Nick Cave and Nine Inch Nails at least as much.
Not only did Flood get her the rich feel and myriad effects suitable to a voice of vastly
increased power and emotional detail- a voice now capable of lyricism and kindness and hope
as well as new shades of desire and need, sarcasm and vulnerability, indignation and
terror- but he saw her through the process. "I was an emotional wreck. What was I doing in
the studio spending all this money on these pathetic stupid songs? Flood knows when you
have to leave something and try again later, when you need to be shouted at or when you
need to be consoled, comforted. He'd be a good therapist."
Let's hope Albini or the Edge or somebody convinces her to stick with her unschooled
guitar, and not just for the "special encores" she half-promises- in the great tradition of John
Lennon and Neil Young, she's a player. But To Bring You My Love isn't just a sop to radio.
Sure, it's as much of a cleanup job as the Replacements' Tim or Sonic Youth's Goo, but in
Harvey's case the aural shift matches a shift in vision. And of the three records, only To Bring
You My Love seems likely to stand equal to the earlier work- or to prove its fulfillment.
The title song is definitely for the audience- a metaphorical catalog of how she suffers for her
art that I take at its word. Two or three others deal with the biological consequences of sex-
no, not disease, but conception, with the mysterious "Down by the Water" legible as a guilty dream about abortion or birth control. And for all we know, "Working for the Man" is about Paul McGuinness. But for the most part these are songs of erotic transfiguration that generalize the sometimes lewd, sometimes fantastic physical facts of Rid of Me into images of ravishment and rapture. Although the divine manifests itself explicitly only in the climactic "Send His Love to Me" ("I'm begging Jesus please") and "The Dancer" ("Touch the face of the true God"), the pervasive mood is religious. Harvey, who was not brought up in the church, professes herself ignorant of the (always female) medieval mystics whose passions hers so vividly recall. But she reports that she reads the Bible a lot, and cops to "rapture" if not "ravishment" as a key to what she's after. It's almost as if she's crying, "Take me away from all this- from my fear, my insecurity, my discomfort, my body like a stranger, the prisonhouse of my self."
To Bring You My Love is a benchmark work. By demonstrating Harvey's ability to mature,
which for most young rock'n'rollers is a daunting paradox, it marks her graduation from
the College of Brilliant Newcomers. As of now, she's a major artist. Where her enduring
fondness for Beefheart, Cave, and Tom Waits has been said to reflect a tomboy's attraction to
bad-boy attitude, something far more telling distinguishes these bad boys from legions of
other guitar-associated male chauvinists- their simultaneous commitment to blues materials and
avant-garde ambition. This has consequences not just in sound but in mythic scope- none of
them are embarrassed about indulging their romanticism and acting like artists with a capital A. Beyond her innate musicality and ingrained aesthetic savoir faire, Harvey lives off a similar synthesis. She yokes free-radical bravado to rooted confidence with an equanimity that's startling and irresistible in the age of pomo self-consciousness. In a way, all that's different on the new album is that her anguish generates the listenability Dry and Rid of Me prided themselves on avoiding.
Needless to say, that listenability is hardly guaranteed to render her a free and equal salesmate of U2. And even if it does- even if Gavin and NARM and MTV and opening for R.E.M. in Europe catalyze the multiplatinum her handlers no doubt glimpse in her and Harvey is immodest enough to secretly suspect she deserves- there's no guarantee she'll stick around to build off her status. On the contrary, she's given explicit signals that at the end of 1995 she'll take at least a year off. She's strong and strong-willed in many ways, but in a pop world teeming with sensitive souls, she's also clearly an exceptionally fragile figure- a shameless boho and country girl who's
overwhelmed by the attention her shamelessness brings her. So early on I asked what motivated her, finally. Why did she feel compelled to perform?
"It's a need I have to do it. It's the nearest I get to fulfillment, though it's still not enough. That's
why you keep chipping away at it a bit more, trying a little bit harder."
"Fulfillment means what?" I asked.
"You know- the hole that's empty- fulfillment
means trying to fill it up a little bit."
And although I'm not fragile or unfulfilled, I did
know. Anybody who's thought hard about what happens when we make love knows
about that hole. As great as it is to come, coming is only a means to an
end. Maybe we need God, maybe our mommies. Whatever. So as our
conversation drew to a close, I tried to link fulfillment to rapture. Harvey was talking about
her fear of losing control.
"Isn't it true," I asked, "that in certain kinds of good sex that feeling
of being in control just
"That's what I'm led to believe, yes. That's what people say."
"I said irrelevant- I didn't say you lose control. It's like control
doesn't mean exactly the same
thing anymore. But not for you?"
"Then would you lose control in that rapture? I do get the feeling that
there's a discomfort with
the self, and that that discomfort is connected to this hole you talk about. Can you see why I think
"Yeah. No, I was about to say...you've hit the nail right on the head.
But I don't feel I can talk
about it any more than that."