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THERE’S SOMETHING about PJ Harvey in a dress that doesn’t quite gel and that’s the something that she’s chafed and worried at in her bruising, sensuous music ever since those first singles three years ago.
She started out as a tomboy, hair scraped back, wondering whether to put on a dress and what might happen if she did. These days it’s impossible to imagine Harvey not wearing a dress. On the cover of this third album proper, Harvey sports a low-cut red evening gown and she looks like a drag queen. Ever since she tried on the role of 50ft Queenie, Harvey has been turning her music and her appearance into a kind of performance art that’s both icily controlled and willfully, want only gone.
But if her last album was a kind of bombardment, a bludgeoning assault on the discomfiture of desire, To Bring You My Love is an altogether more insidious exploration of what it means to be the woman who waits, the woman who longs, the woman who’s left holding the baby. Only the Annie Lennox of Eurythmics’ Savage has even come close to this brilliantly deranged theatre of femininity in extremis, and, like Lennox, Harvey thrives on the fact that she treats her womanhood both as weapon and wound.
The power trio has been disbanded and so has the sonic sludge that threatened to turn Rid Of Me’s every gesture into a dull, thumping blow. Now Harvey whispers more than she screams and her musical language is a kind of carny blues, pitched midway between the Delta and The Bad Seeds (whose Mick Harvey guests on a couple of songs). Harvey has put on this rootsy style like she puts on those dresses but not in some attempt to acquire spurious authenticity. Rather she interrogates the blues, re-entering the language and scenarios of all those bleak, folk-ballads to become the silent partner in all those old, bad luck stories, the woman who never speaks, the “She” who’s either the victim or the cause of all this primal trouble. Forget those West Country roots, these skeletal tales are set in the elemental landscape of the Old Testament, a world of rivers, deserts and floods where a woman hollers and moans, where she longs for her lover until the longing itself is transformed into a source of maddened power.
Most of these songs start out cautious, hushed, built over the most basic of beats and the simplest of riffs. Gradually, Polly unfolds her trouble until the dam bursts and she is enveloped in need. A needy woman is supposedly weak but Harvey mostly sounds like she’s thriving on her hunger. ‘Send His Love To Me’ is typical, built over a flamenco-style rhythm that pads and swells into a gypsy lament, complete with a swirling string coda that’s positively romantic. She begins by calling on Jesus to return her lover post-haste and soon she’s turned inward, telling us how her love has become a kind of Gothic prison, her longing a kind of torture. Her pining is both claustrophobic and oddly liberating, as if the sheer nakedness of her desire has somehow unleashed an avenging angel. By the end, when the strings have finally taken over and taken flight, the title suggests both abject plea and imperious command.
That blend runs throughout these songs, whether she’s cajoling a lover to come back and see the baby she’s borne him in ‘C’mon Billy’ or seemingly murdering her “lovely daughter” in ‘Down By The Water’. In ‘Teclo’, she longs for a dead lover but what starts out as a humbled prayer turns into an invocation of graceful, swooping flight. Once again, supplication has turned into self-assertion.
While much of the album is harrowing, PJ has lost none of her playful humour or her ability to send up sexual clichés. ‘Meet Ze Monsta’, for example, is a wonderfully fuzzed-up stomp in which Polly gets swept off her feet by a “big black monsta”. Her final girlish squeal of pleasure and fright is a perfect take-off of the Fay Wray approach to tall, dark strangers and it leaves the “Oooh, you’ve got a Big One” routine in shreds. Here as elsewhere, Harvey and co-producers Flood and John Parish have conjured up a sound that is sinister and yet almost vaudevillian, making To Bring You My Love a close cousin of both R.E.M.‘s Monster and U2’s Achtung Baby and their equally apocalyptic brands of dark cabaret. Like Stipe or Bono, Harvey knows how to keep herself and us guessing. It’s still impossible to separate her irony from her deepest yearnings, to know when she’s having it out or having us on. She’s one of the very few artists who’s brave enough to expose the fool in herself in order to get closer to the fool in all of us. Hats off, then, to the woman in red.
© Mark Cooper, 1995
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