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The work of PJ Harvey
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Dance Hall at Louse Point (1996)

Two miles south of Abbotsbury, on the coast, is a wooden landing stage that opens out through the reeds onto the bleak waters of the Fleet, and looks across to the barren Chesil Beach: it feels like the last place on earth. The real Louse Point in New York State appears quite pleasant, but Harvey and Parish’s imaginary Louse Point is a truly end-of-the-world spot. Whatever happened there, whether terrible or mundane, isn’t going to happen again. It’s a ruined place, a site of remains and wreckage, where unsettled souls with nowhere else to go unload their memories; of the ten tracks which actually have lyrics, no fewer than four include the word ‘remember’.

John Parish first suggested to Harvey that they might collaborate on an album based around some of his music in 1994; they batted lyrics and melodies back and forward while touring To Bring You My Love and finally put it all together in four weeks early in 1996. But it’s not as simple as ‘John wrote the music and Polly wrote the words’: the two elements form around each other in a genuinely symbiotic relationship, and there is not a line that can be drawn between them.

The opener ‘Girl’ is just a single, melancholy guitar line with Harvey’s voice way, way in the back singing a high note, setting the scene for loss, failure, and disappointment. Although all the characters want to speak, speaking isn’t going to satisfy them: ‘no words can heal my heart’, Harvey sings on the beautifully sad ‘That was my Veil’, and echoes it on ‘Civil War Correspondent’’s account of a broken relationship, ‘words can’t save life’, a peculiar foreshadowing of where her journey would take her twenty years later. ‘Rope Bridge Crossing’ comes over as comparatively optimistic (‘out of darkness into the dare’), but there is still the sense that something bad has happened; the slow and sun-soaked ‘Un Cercle Autour de Soleil’ ought to be upbeat as well, but again a sour memory seems to lie beneath it. ‘Taut’ is another of Harvey’s religion-and-dangerous-driving songs escalated to a psychotic level by strained vocals, frantic guitar work and stabbing percussion.

When Harvey and Parish presented the recording to Island Records the response was ‘commercial suicide’ and had Harvey not already had such success under her belt she wouldn’t have got away with something so defiantly inaccessible. Her determination that Louse Point would not be marketed as a ‘PJ Harvey album’ and the decision to tour it live in association with Mark Bruce’s dance company left critics and audiences bemused; but it was always going to a hard sell anyway. Tracks move from languor to frenzy in a moment (‘City of No Sun’, ‘Urn With Dead Flowers in a Drained Pool’) or are impressively arrhythmic (the title instrumental, and ‘Lost Fun Zone’), and Harvey takes the opportunity provided by not having to play instruments to experiment with her voice. On ‘Civil War Correspondent’ she’s plaintive; on ‘Heela’ she snarls and then sings nasal; on ‘Taut’ she adopts a childish squeal. A lot of the lyrics are simply spoken, increasing the sense of reminiscence, of experience being called to mind.

The heart of the record is the Peggy Lee cover ‘Is That All There Is?’ performed with such disingenuous innocence that it becomes at once creepy and hilarious. Parish backs Harvey with an organ which sounds at first as though it’s accompanying a service in a little tin chapel and then shifts to music-hall gear. The song could have been written for her. ‘If that’s all there is, my friends,’ she wails to the album’s assembled company of characters, ‘then let’s keep dancing’ – even if all they have to dance with are the other ghosts that haunt Louse Point.

She’s 26.
 

Non-album tracks, 1996-7

Unsurprisingly there are only a couple. ‘Why’d Ya Go to Cleveland’ was intended to go on Louse Point but Parish and Harvey decided quite rightly that it didn’t fit: it’s a lightweight and humorous song of abandonment no part of which is to be taken seriously. The second track is a cover, of all things, of the Three Degrees’ ‘When Will I See You Again?’; Harvey and Parish produced it in 1997 for old friend Sarah Miles’s strange short film about two Japanese girls going to school in Lyme Regis, Amaeru Fallout 1972. Harvey puts in a lovely tender turn interpreting the song, and appears in the film, bizarrely but somehow appropriately, dressed in the white gown of a yokai, a Japanese ghost.