The Great Albums

PJ Harvey brings bluesy voice to the forefront with 'Love'


June 13, 2004


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"
5. "Teclo"
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 Gore.

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.