Sunday, 24 November 2013

P.J.Harvey - "These are the words, the words that maketh Murder"

As songwriters go P.J. Harvey is both enigma and paradox.

When performing live she stands with a guitar strapped across her shoulder; one that is very nearly as big as she is. At only five feet four inches tall she seems so petite, so frail, so small that the sound she creates, certainly on her first album Dry, is at odds with her obvious femininity. The music on Dry was raw, visceral and, well, powerful, so powerful that you were left asking this question: surely a girl could not, cannot make that noise. This girl kicked arse; this girl had brute energy; this girl rivaled Nirvana with her potent energy that exploded with primordial force. Her lyrics on this, her virgin album, were not so much dark as they were lacking a total absence of light as they moved among the damp undergrowth as though in a humid Pangea. It was as if the songs were written in an ivy-covered hut while she painted her visions in moss-hung relief.

Look at these, my child-bearing hips
Look at these, my ruby red ruby lips
He said Sheela-Na-Gig, you exhibitionist

Her output since those early days has been willfully hard to define as it has shape-shifted from one incarnation to another with unbelievable ease. She moves like a  will-o'-the-wisp, flitting from style to style while always remaining true to herself. If Dry was a powerhouse of driven blues then Rid  of Me was less sweet, more heathen and even more savage than its predecessor.  Rid of Me was hewn from flint. Sparks flew from its splintered heart that pierced the ether with a Tsunami of violent riffs. It was a ravaging and natural progression from the first album as it crashed into the world of music like an earthquake or a volcanic eruption. The songs too were remarkable with creeping tendril fingers that gripped and clawed at the fabric of dark humour leaving me, and many like me, breathless at their very twisted nature.

I'm calling you weak
And I'll make it better
And rub 'till it bleeds
I'll rub it until it

I had never before, even in light of the aggressive streak inherent in punk, heard anything quite so desperately dangerous as this. It was subversive but not in a way that screamed at you, although the music most certainly did, but the lyric, when read out loud, whispered the dark heart of humanity as though it were a stone being turned by a god who found under it a seething mass of wriggling matter before squirming free so as to glimpse the pale sun. These songs bruised you; they stopped your breath as your heart beat a little faster to their violent passions and this from a female who stood as pretty as a moth and as apparently equally fragile. But if she were the moth then who had started the flame burning? Her music drew me in just like the winged insect I perceived trembling in my hand.

Polly Jean Harvey was born in Bridport, Dorset which, apart from the novelty act The Wurzles, is not a county often associated with great music although legendary guitarist Robert Fripp hails from there. She was born on October 9th nineteen sixty-nine the daughter of two hippies who had chosen to make their lives outside of the norm with her father a stonemason and her mother a sculptor.

Polly has a questing heart. She is never happy to settle on any one given formula but slips from one flower to another sipping various nectar's leaving us with a variety of flavours to savour.

Climbed over mountains
Travelled the sea
Cast down off heaven
Cast down on my knees
I've laid with the devil
Cursed god above
Forsaken heaven
To bring you my love

There is something quintessentially English about Polly even if her music is blues driven and, in some odd way her songs have more in line with Charlotte Bronté and Grace Poole than with Thomas Hardy. Having said that, perhaps I shouldn’t dismiss Hardy so swiftly as his penultimate novel featuring his tragic heroine Tess isn’t a million miles away from some of Mistress Harvey’s work. It is a wide spectrum of passions too that she examines, everything from the bitter almond of jealousy, the lichen-green decay of envy to the scarlet bloodied, teeth bared grimace of murder. This depth of passion that shapes her songs reveals an all-consuming lust that encompasses all the wayward emotions of the heart including despair, rage, murder and even infanticide.

Little fish. big fish. Swimming in the water.
Come back here, man. gimme my daughter.

For those who describe Polly as a tortured artist get short shift from the lady herself who responds with her normal intelligent, if quiet, reserved way saying Some critics have taken my writing so literally to the point that they'll listen to 'Down by the Water' and believe I have actually given birth to a child and drowned her." To the best of my knowledge, she has never drowned anyone although there may be one or two journalists she would cheerfully shoot if the occasion presented itself.

The arrival of her third album was met with much acclaim with some even declaring it a masterpiece To Bring You My Love affirmed her as a talent to be taken seriously that she was capable of consistently producing, over a period of time, fresh and creative songs that were not only of the time they were composed in but also had that rare quality to live on beyond the songwriter’s ambition. The cover depicted a P.J. Harvey slowly sinking into the water as though she were the character from one of her more famous songs. This was an album as mysterious as the stars, as deep as the ocean, as flighty as the breeze. It appealed to hosts of people due to its apparent accessibility but this commercial aspect did not detract from the powerful songs that mixed beautiful melodies with dense, atmospheric lyrics.  It boiled like a subterranean lake. It was Polly at her elemental best.

Fans and critics alike were ambivalent to nineteen ninety-eight’s be This Desire as they found it too electronic, too experimental and nothing like the previous three records. I loved it and still do as it dared to be different but still ran rich with songs that twisted you like a knot with their mesmerising, hypnotic lyrics. Sometimes critics get what the wish for and when they do they throw up their hands and baulk at the product as if it were less good than they thought it should be. Is This Desire succeeded on all levels displaying a greater sense of variety from P.J. as a songwriter and composer with songs of maturity that truly pushed the barriers.

Wedged in between To Bring You My Love and Is This Desire was Polly’s first collaborative album that she worked on with John Parish. It again showed her need to evolve and to embrace new challenges and this, above all else, is why I so enjoy her creative output. She is brave like a butterfly is brave as it flits from flower to flower unconcerned by the dangers that surround it, caring for nothing but the charm and beauty of their search. The record sold poorly and was generally dismissed as notes scrawled in the margins which were pretty stupid of those who adopted such a myopic viewpoint for yet again Polly, along with her long-time friend and possible mentor had made music of merit and worth.

Polly has that capacity to re-invent herself, to explore and drag out unknown qualities from their character, to examine that huge range of human emotions under a microscopic eyeglass. It is this ceaseless quest for self-discovery that intrigues and interests me most with Polly Jean. She never seems to dwell long on past success but constantly seeks new heights to ascend, new frontiers to discover. It is above all else her greatest strength and is the one thing that lifts her head and shoulders above so many of her contemporaries. 

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 ?

In the first year of the new millennium she released another album, Stories from the City, Stories from the Sea which took her audience into yet more uncharted waters with its radio friendly, punk thrash sound which included the genius song that had Thom Yorke of Radiohead fame sing a duet with Polly on ‘This Mess We’re In’  It is an achingly beautiful song with a trembling melody and despairing lyric that captures the flavour of New York so well.

Since then, and with unflinching regularity, Polly has continued to bedazzle with her quicksilver heart as it beats its own rhythm. There have been a clutch of albums, including ‘Uh Huh Her,’ the divine ‘White Chalk,’ the wonderful ‘Peel Sessions’ (how I miss that man) and another collaboration with John Parish, ‘A Woman a Man Walked By,’  all of which demonstrated her delight in change, in discovery. This album was riveted together by steel bolts, forged in metal, grinding like the blues a perfect collaboration of two like-minded individuals.

Then came what many think her second masterpiece. 

"Let England Shake" proved again how good a songwriter she is. Like a journalist or a war correspondent or a female Siegfried Sassoon, she reported what she saw. Without rancour or discrimination, she told it as she observed it. the end result was one of her most satisfying achievements. Haunting, exploratory, dreadful in what it captured but pure in its intent.

It is impossible to try and second guess what P.J. Harvey will do next. Her music is like a character from a book that once created starts to live a life quite independently from that conceived by the author. Her music will follow its own path and Polly will undoubtedly be there as a conduit for it to escape from. I for one will wait with ever baited breath for that moment.

Polly Harvey is as individual as it is possible to be in a world so mechanised, so industrialised, so filled with corporate concerns that we all, by degree, are cogs in its machine. Polly shows us what life used to be about with its confusion of passions, its burning desires, and its grotesque fantasies. Polly shows us what it is to be human. Polly Jean Harvey the enigmatic paradox.

Russell Cuts the Corn From The Brewers Whiskers and listens to only the best sound don't you know?

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A Utility Fish Shed Blog