The work of PJ Harvey
Go to homepagePJ Harvey - All About EveDry (1992)Rid Of Me (1993)Uh Huh Her (2004)To Bring You My Love (1995)White Chalk (2007)Dance Hall at Louse Point (1996)A Woman a Man Walked By (2009)Is This Desire? (1998)Let England Shake (2011)Stories from the City, Stories from the Sea (2001)The Hope Six Demolition Project (2016)
All About Eve - soundtrack (2019)

Having redefined what it means to come from Dorset in White Chalk, to be English in Let England Shake, and to be a global citizen in Hope Six, where was the maestra to go next? Somewhere, it predictably turned out, entirely unexpected. Unexpected, but a full-length score for Ivo van Hove's West End production of All About Eve was not a completely unprecedented step. In fact, Harvey had been dipping her toe in the water of theatre for some years; in 2009  she provided two items for Ian Rickson’s production of Hedda Gabler in New York, a show which flopped badly although nobody blamed the composer; Harvey worked with Mr Rickson again on his version of Hamlet at the Young Vic in 2011, on Electra in 2015, The Nest in 2016 and The Goat, or Who Is Sylvia? in 2017, as well as contributing background music for a radio production, Orpheus and Eurydice. All of her output for these plays was incidental music or themes with one exception: a song – or maybe songs - written for Vinette Robinson to perform as the maddened Ophelia in Hamlet, accompanying herself on a lute. It’s a shame that only theatre audiences have ever heard any of this material; someone from who went to see Electra described Polly’s themes as ‘sounding like a Morricone-ish Western placed in Ancient Greece’ and although you can hear snippets on Youtube it would be well worth experiencing the whole thing. So Eve was the first extended score she has produced, and the first time she'd felt it worth putting out to the public.

Harvey describes the score as opening out of the inclusion in the 1950 film of All About Eve of Franz Liszt’s 'Liebestraume', though typically from that one source she spins a variety of quite different pieces of music. There are also two complete songs written for the main actors, Gillian Anderson and Lily James, to sing, attempting to capture the characters’ emotions at particular points. 'Traume' is slightly reminiscent of Ryuichi Sakamoto, but the bigger influence lurking behind All About Eve is Mica Levi whose acclaimed cinema scores for Under The Skin and Jackie the singer has expressed admiration for in the past. It would be hard to describe even the 10 instrumental pieces as ‘incidental’ music: like Levi’s work, despite being often abstract and arrhythmic, they are strongly flavoured and some critics felt the score was a little overwhelming.

Notwithstanding the antecedents, as always, Harvey is her own woman. The main tone across the whole score is a combination of the gentle and the baleful, heard most clearly in the six pieces which are organised around simple piano chords: they exploit very carefully the contrasting qualities of those chords in a way which strongly recalls White Chalk, but with more muscular and conventional orchestration around the keyboard work. ‘Descending’ and ‘Ascending’ form a pair, though the second doesn’t have Kenrick Rowe’s dramatic drumming to power it along, like the first. And the songs are a separate matter again. Gillian Anderson’s ‘The Sandman’ is an appropriately dreamlike waltz, but not a very comforting one: you get the impression that the Sandman is not someone you really look forward to encountering: ‘the Moon appears/One thousand fears arise’. Meanwhile, Lily James’s song, ‘The Moth’, is a great Goth pop track, swirly, romantic and deliciously melancholy. It could almost have been written by – wait for it – All About Eve, and I wonder whether that’s deliberate Harveyan mischief. Harvey sings backing vocals on both songs and thereby manages to make them sound almost exactly like herself anyway.

‘I’ve always loved stories’, says the singer on her website about this album, but the non-specificity of the songs demonstrates that although she claims merely to be illustrating musically the text of the play, she’s actually using it as a point of departure to somewhere else – her customary approach to any source material, going right back to her Biblically-inspired songs of nearly thirty years ago. All About Eve marks a breathing-space, an exercise, though in preparation for what I doubt Harvey herself knows yet.

She’s 49.


Non-album tracks, 2019

Harvey's scoring work carried on with her music for TV series The Virtues, which was also commercially released. However, although its soundscapes are intriguing, they amount to a less coherent unit even than the score for All About Eve. Very attentive listeners would discover that she'd reused one piece from the music for Orpheus and Eurydice four years earlier, which became The Virtues' 'The Lonely Wolf'; while the one song, the austere and brutal torture lyric 'A Crowded Cell', has nothing specific to do with the drama and sounds like an out-take from Hope Six. Harvey's involvement with The Virtues is yet another example of the weird synchronicity that haunts her career: if you believe the account of director Shane Meadows, he was just thinking how great it would be if she could write a score for the series when she called him saying how she'd like to work with him, and did he have anything suitable for her!