With all of those men
constantly whining about how their baby done them wrong, it's easy to forget
that at its inception, the blues was also a great feminist art form.
Pioneering women such as Bessie Smith, Dinah Washington, Lucille Bogan
and Julia Lee sang with raw, unfettered anger and lustful energy about the
frustrations and joys of their relationships. And no artist in the rock era
has reconnected with those roots as effectively as the diminutive but
undeniable English enigma known as PJ Harvey.
Born to a quarryman father and an artist mother, Polly Jean Harvey was
raised on a sheep farm in rural Yeovil, England; she later settled in
another country town, Dorset. She learned to play guitar and sax as a child,
and formed her first band in her teens.
PJ HARVEY "To Bring You My Love" (1995, Island)
1. "To Bring You My Love"
2. "Meet Ze Monsta"
3. "Working for the Man"
4. "C'mon Billy"
6. "Long Snake Moan"
7. "Down by the Water"
8. "I Think I'm a Mother"
9. "Send His Love to Me"
10. "The Dancer"
In 1991, she put together a trio with bassist Steve Vaughn and drummer
Robert Ellis, named it after herself, linked up with the British indie Too
Pure and soon established herself as one of the most powerful female voices
on the burgeoning alternative-rock scene.
PJ Harvey introduced its stark but poignant punk-rock take on the blues
with "Dry" (1992). Produced by Chicago punk legend Steve Albini, "Rid of Me"
followed in 1993 with an abrasive sound that critics and fans either loved
or hated. (Harvey later released the demos for the disc to illustrate what
the songs sounded like pre-Albini.) The bandleader showed considerable
growth as a songwriter and as a live performer over the course of both
albums and the tours to support them. But even her most ardent boosters were
unprepared for the leap she was about to make in 1995.
Harvey parted ways with Ellis and Vaughn after the "Rid of Me" tour and
set about recording her third album as a solo artist with producer Flood
(U2, Depeche Mode, Smashing Pumpkins) and a new group centered around the
core members of bassist Mick Harvey (a frequent sideman for one of Harvey's
heroes, Nick Cave) and the powerhouse guitar tag team of John Parish and Joe
With "To Bring You My Love," the strain of deep blues that had been
running through Harvey's recordings from the beginning came to the
forefront. The dynamics span from a quiet, middle-of-the-night whisper to a
frightening, full-throttle roar, and the album's 10 songs ooze out of the
speakers over slow, grinding rhythms and expansive washes of fuzz guitar and
droning organ. But the focus is always on that mysterious voice.
With her hoarse rasp and occasional Patti Smith-like screech, Harvey
isn't a technically great singer, but her phrasing and dramatic delivery
make the already haunting and poetic lyrics even stronger. On "C'mon Billy,"
she confronts the absentee father of her imagined son. The single "Down by
the Water" contemplates the heinous crime of infanticide; "Long Snake Moan"
is a minimalist sketch of wanton desire worthy of Howlin' Wolf, and the
determined rant of "Meet Ze Monsta" accurately likens Harvey's feminine rage
to a destructive force of nature. ("Hell ain't half full/Take me with
you/Big black monsoon/Take me with you.")
"I see music in a very spiritual way," Harvey told me at the time of the
disc's release. "It's not to be thought about too much or rationalized or
intellectualized. Everything I do is on a very instinctive level, and I
don't like to dwell on how or why it comes about."
In an interview around the same time, Harvey's American rival, Courtney
Love, claimed that all of the songs on "To Bring You My Love" had been
inspired by Albini. It was a popular rumor at the time, and Harvey laughed
when I asked her about it.
"It's not true, but it is very, very funny," she said. "Steve and I find
this all very amusing because people like to read so much into things. They
like to think that I was dissatisfied with his work, and the rumors go on
all the way down to I just had his love child. We're really very good
friends, and we have a common problem -- people read things in and make him
what they want him to be. He's the only other person I know that that
happens to besides myself. People have a very specific idea of what I am --
some kind of ax-wielding, man-eating Vampira -- and I'm not that at all. I'm
almost the complete opposite."
Harvey may well have been the quiet "country bumpkin" she liked to
portray herself as, but it was easy to understand where the other image
originated when you saw her in concert to support the album. For the first
time, she shunned the guitar and stepped out as a galvanizing frontwoman in
summery dress and outlandish fake gold eyelashes, vamping, voguing and
prowling the stage like feminine lust personified.
The artist had signed with U2's manager, Paul McGuinness, and she joined
Live and Veruca Salt on an arena tour as "To Bring You My Love" connected
both commercially (debuting at No. 40 on the Billboard albums chart and
making a dent on MTV with the clip for "Down by the Water") and critically
(it claimed the top spot on the Village Voice's annual Pazz and Jop Poll of
the nation's rock critics). Later, she also opened for U2 on a stadium
jaunt. But Harvey has always been more comfortable burrowing in the
underground than wading in the mainstream.
The new "Uh Huh Her," Harvey's first album in four years, is a gift to
her devoted cult following, and she is once again flying under the radar.
(The London Observer's recent list of the 100 Greatest British Albums of all
time could not even find one place for her.) The disc maintains her position
as one of the most important if underappreciated voices of her generation,
an artist who is simply much too powerful to ignore, but "To Bring You My
Love" remains her masterpiece.
BACK TO NEWS
BACK TO THE GREAT ALBUMS