PJ Harvey: All She Needs Is Love
from In Pittsburgh, by Megan Dietz
There is a certain breed of girl whose soul seems as dark as her eyes, open but still unknowable. She hardly ever has a boyfriend, mostly because of her big mouth and the horrifying things that come out of it. She's smart and funny, but a little obsessive when she gets going, a little too committed to her goal. Hysterical at times, she's often treated as if her only objective is to suck the life from whatever sap she can lure into her vortex. Really, all she needs is love, but she needs a lot of it, which means she gets almost none, so she tends to be a little jittery, a little sad, maybe a little desperate.
Polly Jean Harvey is a textbook example of this girl, a self-described "school weirdo" who just wanted to "be normal and have boyfriends." Talented, passionate, but somehow still not quite right, her face a little too gaunt: lack of love can make you creepy.
It can also give you a great sense of humor, because desire is a trap so all-powerful that all you can do is laugh. Denying it is foolish and ultimately impossible. But articulating the longing like PJ does inspires faith that someday it will be quieted. Or, at least, faith that we can be beautiful regardless, that desire, even unfulfilled, can be its own reward.
In 1991, bassist Steve Vaughan and drummer Robert Ellis joined Polly for PJ Harvey the band's first incarnation. On the strength of two independent singles ("Dress" and "Sheela-Na-Gig"), they signed to Island Records and released their debut album Dry. The English and American presses immediately went nuts for the farm-fresh young lady beating on her guitar, wailing about bleeding and frustration.
"Sheela-Na-Gig" is named for an Irish fertility figure who squats and holds her own vulva wide open. Ingenious Polly uses her as a metaphor for the cringing humiliation of exposing oneself to eyes that prove critical, brutally disattached:
Look at these my child-bearing hips
Look at these my ruby-red ruby lips...
I lay it all at your feet
You turn around and say back to me
He said Sheela-Na-Gig, Sheela-Na-Gig
She goes on to announce that she's gonna wash that man right out of her hair and take her hips to a man who cares, unlike the present one who says things like wash your breasts ... take those dirty pillows away from me. All this happens over loud, strident, twisting guitars and drums hammering like thunder. Hell hath no fury, I guess, like a weirdo scorned. But her fury works a strange alchemy, transforming bulbous eyes to luminous, weird to magnetic.
Even on her first record, Polly goes beyond simple yin-yangs like wallflower/exhibitionist, little girl/big guitar. She plays with different instruments and time signatures, more complex emotions than just rage. A hypnotic 5/4 riff builds on itself in "Water," creating a jerky, wild-eyed novena to leveling power: Now the water to my ankles, now the water to my knees/ Think of him all wax and wing melting down into the sea. Dissonant strings cut straight through the stoicism of "Plants and Rags," inflecting it with reckless, chaotic despair: White and black, you're looking for the sun, boy?/ The sun doesn't shine down here in shadow.
PJ's austere songwriting, her intense personal-political lyrics, and her impassioned performances earned her some of 1992's top critical honors: Rolling Stone's critics' poll named her best songwriter and best new female artist; the Village Voice and the New York Times agreed in placing Dry among their favorite albums of the year.
The following summer, the band released Rid Of Me. Some listeners didn't approve of producer Steve Albini's brutal treatment of PJ's material, but she did ask for it, and despite its problems, Rid Of Me blisters. The title cut, first on the album, begins almost inaudibly on one repeated, stuttering note. Tie yourself to me, she moans, No one else, no/ You're not rid of me/ You're not rid of me. The verse continues so softly you have to turn it up. When the chorus comes blasting in and Polly starts screaming, Don't you wish you'd never never met her? you realize you've been had, and you might turn it down if you weren't paralyzed, pinned stupidly to your La-Z-Boy. The instruments drop out at the end, and everyone is left gasping ~ Lick my legs, I'm on fire/ Lick my legs, I'm desire. Her obsession is dead-on, so complete and perfectly expressed it's hilarious.
She continues to simultaneously adore her lover and attack him for assuming so damn much power. She cripples him in "Legs," lyrics evolving from Oh you're divine to You were going to be my life to I might as well be dead, but I could kill you instead. She also crafts an entire song from the four most damaging words ever uttered to mankind ~ You leave me dry ~ singing them over and over.
The album's big single was "50 Ft. Queenie," sleek, aggressive, with gunning guitars and evil-sounding percussion, Albini's specialty. In the video Polly's a deranged '50s housewife spray-painting the studio and howling at the camera, You come on measure me, I'm 20 inches long. By the end of the song, it's 50 inches. She is a funny girl, something often overlooked in the face of her intensity and skill.
Rid Of Me brought the band to America for its first extensive headlining tour. Her clothes changed ~ silver lam~ gowns instead of the black jeans and t-shirts she'd sported on earlier U.S. dates ~ but her stage demeanor remained inscrutable, impassioned but aloof. Smiling demurely from behind her guitar and mike stand, Polly said nothing but "thank you" between songs, ravenously hungry one minute, distant and reserved the next.
Immediately after the tour, Polly announced she was dropping her band. She performed on The Tonight Show alone, released an album of four-track demos she'd made prior to Rid Of Me, and disappeared for a while. The private country girl who'd appeared topless on the cover of New Music Express was a little whipped by all the media pressure. She was (and is), after all, one of the best, most interesting pop musicians in England, and not even twenty-five years old.
More importantly than any celebrity excitability, though, she'd just gotten bored with the standard guitar-bass-drums lineup of her band. She wanted more ammunition, room to write songs that might require more than three musicians to play live. To Bring You My Love, the result of all this wing-stretching, was released this spring.
Polly plays organ and guitar on the new record, but mostly she sings. Actually she wails and screeches and hams it up like mad, in the process invoking genres as disparate as blues, industrial, and folk. Former U2 producer Flood was brought in to add, in Polly's word, "space" to her sound; the record also has more ambiguity, more style.
Shedding her band liberated her music; it also seems to have freed her lyrics from the details of this world. The new songs are vast, extreme, so hyperbolic they read like fables. Her images come straight from the Holy Land ~ deserts, floods, fire, snakes. On Rid Of Me and Dry, she alludes to myths and Biblical stories. On To Bring You My Love she enters them, or rather, allows them to enter her.
(c) 1995 Megan Dietz