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The work of PJ Harvey
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To Bring You My Love (1995)

You might have thought that a record so much more accessible, polished, and elegant than its predecessors would carry less of an impact, but To Bring You My Love manages to be even more rending. Here, Harvey exchanges rawness for theatricality, rage for sorrow, and jagged extremes for a claustrophobic singleness of tone that slowly accumulates towards a soul-tearing finale. She, her old friend John Parish and new producer Flood create a lush, velvet aural texture which was mirrored in live performances by her glamorous silks and chiffons. Harvey, in absolute mastery of her style, doesn’t need to experiment now, and several songs are beautifully melodic; swooping with strings, ‘C’mon Billy’ is sweeter than any of her previous tracks.

‘Working for the Man’ and ‘I Think I’m a Mother’ are a bit obscure – is the first really in the voice of a serial killer? – but in general there’s no mistaking what’s going on in any song. What’s going on, however, is nothing comforting, but a gradual intensification of frustrated desire and misery, underlain by a sense of menace expressed in eerie organ drones, slow rhythms, and repetitive guitars. Apart from the campy melodrama of the whole work, there’s no humour at all, unless the whistle on ‘Meet Ze Monsta’, inexplicable but a stroke of genius, makes you smile. Humour was confined to the videos for the singles, if it’s an appropriate word to denote, for instance, the film accompanying what became Harvey’s signature song, ‘Down By the Water’, in which, sheathed in a red dress, she smirks, flutters and writhes her way through an account of infanticide.

This is an album positively soaked in religion and smoked dry again in Gothic. Six tracks have an explicitly religious lyric; but it’s a desperate, deathbed sort of religiosity, the tone set right at the start with ‘To Bring You My Love’’s line ‘I’ve lain with the Devil, cursed God above’. To express these baleful sentiments Harvey runs through a repertoire of vocal acrobatics: she drops to the bottom of her register (‘Teclo’, ‘I Think I’m a Mother’), mumbles (‘Working for the Man’), shouts (‘Long Snake Moan’), engages in exhilaratingly painful Galás-esque vibrato (‘To Bring You My Love’), and whispers (‘Down By the Water’). The cumulative effect is unnatural, making the singer sound positively possessed by a force beyond her.

To Bring You My Love is, emotionally, a knife wrapped in silk. It begins in the swamp and builds towards a devastating conclusion. The powerfully rhythmic ‘Send His Love to Me’, which has already been foreshadowed by a line in ‘Teclo’ (‘send me his love’), heightens the hysteria in readiness for the titanic concluding track.  The flamenco-inflected melody of ‘The Dancer’ leads slowly through one of Harvey’s most overwrought lyrics (‘he came dressed in black with a cross bearing my name’), and orgasmic gasps and yelps, to collapse in the apocalyptic drawn-out howl of anguish with which this beautiful, terrible forty-minute soundscape finally dissolves like a very bad dream. We are left shaking.

She’s 25.

 

Non-album tracks, 1995-1998

None of the pieces released as b-sides to To Bring You My Love’s singles, or in the years afterward, really sound much like the album. There are a couple of clamorous and intimidating love-and-desire songs of the type Harvey was by now doing with great proficiency (‘Harder’, ‘One Time Too Many’), while the accordion-based ‘Darling Be There’ and ‘Lying in the Sun’ (whose opening minute-and-a-half of painful guitar feedback seems to summon up the discomfort of a too-hot day) are slower variations on the same theme. The brilliantly lustful ‘Maniac’ gets closest to the album’s tone, an enormously fun track woven from keyboard drones, clattering percussion, distorted vocals, and Native American whooping – the whistle from ‘Meet Ze Monsta’ pops up too. ‘Somebody’s Down, Somebody’s Name’ is a bit of a misfire given its serious subject; at points Harvey sounds as though she’s actually doing an impression of Nick Cave, who she didn’t know very well at all then. The rocky ‘Naked Cousin’ was already a couple of years old before Harvey provided a version of it for the soundtrack of The Crow 2: City of Angels in 1996, far and away the best thing in the film.

The set is completed with a variety of collaborations and covers, including a treatment of Rainer Ptacek’s ‘Losing Ground’, a contribution to a tribute album for the fatally ill guitarist, and later appearing on a session for John Peel; ‘Rest Sextet’, a collaboration with Rob Ellis to whom Harvey was now reconciled after the dispersal of the band, and who gave her song an avant-garde strings arrangement, its awkward sounds complementing the vicious and uncomfortable lyric; an almost sleepily-downbeat version of Kurt Weill’s ‘Ballad of the Soldier’s Wife’, recorded in 1994 for the Weill compilation September Songs but unreleased until 1997; and ‘Who Will Love Me Now’, from the soundtrack of The Passion of Darkly Noon. That song’s author was Nick Bicat, Harvey merely lending it her voice, but despite the syrupy orchestration she manages to make it genuinely gentle and tender. The recording was made late in 1994 but the track had to wait two years for a release, as a b-side for Louse Point’s only single. These are all surpassed by Harvey’s second work for Bicat, the stark, simple and achingly sad ‘This is Mine’, written for another 1996 movie Stella Does Tricks: a song so perfect, and perfectly Harveian, that it’s hard to believe she had no hand in it. The pure, reticent vocal foreshadowed work she would do much later.