Polly Jean Harvey takes a breather from PJ
from the Boston Phoenix, September 26 - October 3, 1996
by Stephanie Zacharek
When artists take on a side project, the finished product frequently comes off as fillip, a curlicued detour, a fancy little dip in the dance of a singer's career. Polly Jean Harvey is something else again. Her new album, Dance Hall at Louse Point (Island), a collaboration with guitarist and songwriter John Parish, is neither as polished nor as affecting as her earlier albums, and yet it demands that you sit up and take notice.
Dance Hall proves that Harvey, even when she's not trying all that hard, still has the strength, the agility, and the command of a cobra. The power in her voice comes from her refusal to play any one role exclusively: she's the open-hearted farm girl and the urbane chanteuse, the jilted lover and the predatory queen. Most striking of all, maybe, is that despite her love of theatrics, there's always something naked and new about her, as if she'd just emerged fully formed from the ocean foam or a giant pod.
With the exception of a cover of Leiber & Stoller's "Is That All There Is," the album consists of originals, with music by Parish and words by Harvey. The pair wrote the songs last year, while Parish was playing guitar in Harvey's band. (He also co-produced the astonishing 1995 To Bring You My Love.) The numbers on Dance Hall at Louse Point -- recorded with a line-up that, in addition to Harvey and Parish, includes Eric Drew Feldman on bass and keyboards, Rob Ellis on drums, and Jeremy Hogg on guitars -- have the loose, experimental feel of songs written in spare moments on the road, conceived on the fly and built upon just a bit, but ultimately left quite simple. Although the sonic textures sometimes come off as wayward and arty (choreographer Mark Bruce is working them up into a dance piece that will tour Britain next year), Harvey, for all her theatrical affectation, never sacrifices emotion for art's sake. The heat of her voice, as intense as a blowtorch, almost always holds the songs together.
A few of the tracks are downright pretty: Harvey's voice has a citrusy freshness and clarity on "Un Cercle Autour du Soleil," with its spindly, daddy-long-legs guitar line grounded by a drumbeat that pumps as low, slow, and steady as a steer's heart. Harvey repeats words and phrases ("Time heals, lingers/Trace with my fingers/A circle, a circle/Round the sun, the sun, the sun . . . ") as if she were responding to the song's shambling rhythm the way a weathervane spins in a gentle breeze.
Harvey's reading of "Is That All There Is" is probably the album's biggest misstep; she's not at her best when she's pulling the blasé-and-bored act that the song invites. The numbers that work best are the ones where she unrolls her sense of drama with the subtlety of a thunderclap. One of the most stunning songs, "That Was My Veil," reads like the defiant suicide note of a jilted country girl, with its mossy acoustic-guitar and stormy organ lines: "No words can heal my heart/Inside I'm broken, now it's done/Was she a pretty girl, does she have pretty hair?/Was she soft-spoken, was there a love there?" When Harvey sings, "That was my veil," she's bruised but accusatory. On paper, the words suggest prissiness (as if she were merely explaining that the purity of her wedding veil had been sullied), but the bitterness in her voice undercuts that easy reading completely; she's singing not so much about something that's been snatched away from her as about something that's been ripped out of her. "Give me back my life," she demands in a voice that holds us at knifepoint.
Even more harrowing is "Taut," which is less a song than a performance piece in the style of Patti Smith's transcendent song-poems. Its disquieting narrative begins, "Can I tell you something?/Can I tell you a story, it's about me and Billy?/. . . I remember it all started when he bought that car/It was the first thing he ever owned, apart from me." Harvey works her voice into a hoarse whimper ("I would do anything for him/It just wasn't enough, it was never enough") that cuts to the marrow. Dance Hall at Louse Point may be a side project for Harvey, but it's hardly negligible. If this is what she's capable of when she's not trying all that hard, Heaven help us when she turns the heat on full blast.