PJ and Bunkum
Too much psychobabble has been spouted about Polly Jean Harvey - not least by PJ herself, Tom Doyle asks whether her bold, contradictory new album take us anywhere nearer the truth.
Blame Alanis Morissette or Shirley Manson or whoever, but following the don’t realisation of record company marketing departments the world over, the once marginalised and trivialised concept of Women In Rock has now become the ezee-marketing convenience of the late Nineties. The ingredients are simple: slow-burning sexuality, paper doll fragility, fuck-you-pal attitude, a tendency to paranoia and a liberal helping of kookiness.
Tediously, though, following this boom and the inevitable onslaught of fourth-generation Alanis Xeroxes and Shirley-Lites, it’s starting to look pretty crowded out there. Which is why the return of PJ Harvey is such a glorious thing. The pretenders will be forced to respectfully step aside, allowing the self-proclaimed "bitch from hell" to cut her swathe once more.
The release this month of her fourth proper album, ‘Is This Desire?’, sees her return with a new head of coquettish coal-black curls to accompany what is probably her most accessible album to date. The almost breezy lead-off single, ‘A Perfect Day Elise’, is pleasingly radio-friendly, while the ghost of Billie Holiday haunts ‘Catherine’, ‘Angelene’ is a muted country epic and ‘The River’ is something approximating a modern spiritual. As usual, it’s her music alone that offers the best insight into Harvey’s current state of mind - apparently more calm and reflective, but still prone to bursts of edgy dislocation.
This time around, only a handful of interviewers will be allowed to talk to her. "At the start of each new album campaign, there’s always a lot of interviews to be done, and I would rather not be doing them. I’m sick of analysing myself," she told me when I spent the day with her in Chicago three years ago. Polly might be sick of analysing herself, but her public remains fascinated. In an era of manufactured angst and girlies pretending to be real in camouflage trousers, the integrity of Polly is palpable.
Really only Courtney Love and Polly Harvey rise above the typical female rocker cliché. For a kick-off, they’re both genuinely terrifying. Even the post-makeover Love still gives the impression that she could stove in the head of any comer. With Harvey, it’s often more the thoughts or scenarios that her songs depict - or worse, imply - that are scary. When, in the title track of her harrowing second album, she sinisterly whispered, "You’re not rid of me / I’ll make you lick my injuries", she gleefully toyed with the deep-rooted male fear of the rabbit boiler. Even Courtney has bowed to her. "The one rock star that makes me know I’m shit is Polly Harvey," she said recently. "I’m nothing next to the purity which she experiences. She makes me know I’m this bit."
Harvey has gone her own way from the outset. Arriving in 1991 into a British music scene still big, dumb, baggy and about to tumble into dopey introspection, Poll’s make-up free, Doc Martened image - hair scraped back into a bun as she touted the buzzsaw bluesy rock of ‘Dry’ - had her fancied as a new feminist icon. That particular preconception was gloriously - confusingly - trashed when she appeared topless on the cover of NME. Sending out a tangled mess of potent and contradictory signals soon became her accepted bag. Upon signing to Island Records, instead of delivering a diluted, commercial take on ‘Dry’ as might have been expected, she came back with the Steve Albini-produced ‘Rid Of Me’, her most relentless, hard-line and hit-free statement to date. Perversely, it was around this time that she was first exposed to a far wider audience, with her high-profile support slots on U2’s ‘Zooropa" tour. Her power trio dynamics had fired the imagination of the headliners’ heavyweight manager - arguably the most respected in the business, Paul McGuinness. It’s worth noting that, even now, U2 and Polly Harvey are the only artists he represents.
Accusations of join-the -dots careerism were further fuelled by the fact that PJ Harvey - to all intents a band name in the public perception - were suddenly disbanded by Polly straight after ‘Rid Of Me’, with the name of course reverting back to her. And yet, Harvey has always insisted that winning the respect of her ever-growing audience and her contemporaries is her ultimate motivating force, rather than achieving optimum global sales and a sackful of Grammys.
What the ‘solo’ Polly did next was completely remake and remodel herself for 1995’s ‘To Bring You My Love’ - becoming a noir Ziggy with a dark, theatrical edge to her performances. Her songs were now littered with drowned daughters, voodoo rituals and kerb-crawling killers. If seemingly possessed by twin personalities (on-stage, distortedly wailing about black and sticky matters; in person, soft-spoken - if quietly intense - with the perfectly enunciated vowels of a Jane Austen heroine), it’s an issue that Harvey is not unwilling to discuss. "For all of my positive, gentle side, there is a darker and negative side," she admitted to me in Chicago. "I’m very drawn to the darker sides of life and wanting to understand them and explore them".
During that day, she padded around the city in a low-slung vest that had one cabbie visibly gawping. Yet, later, she countered this mild exhibitionism by gently refusing to have her photograph taken for a local paper ad for the cafe they were in.
Later that day, she admitted to her controlling nature. "I need to feel like I’m quite together about everything," she stated, with a semi-detached calm. "I know very much what I want to achieve and I know what I have to do in order to be able to get there."
Intensely guarded when it came to revealing much of her quiet rural life in Dorset, she had threatened only months before to stop doing interviews altogether (an enigma-building trip that’s worked well for Prince and Richard Ashcroft).
Later still, I bumped into her as I left the hotel. She was dolled up as the exaggerated Polly that seemed to suit her fine at the time - green cartoon eyeshadow, fake Cruella lashes, packet of Marlboro rolled into the sleeve of her T-shirt like some redneck. She talked about how her stress-related illness and depression around the time of ‘Rid Of Me’ had dissipated. How she was "probably the happiest I’ve ever been in my life". Yet she now talks about herself during that ‘dressing up’ period as having been "very lost as a person. I had no sense of self left at all."