Review Summary: For Tomorrow: A Guide to Contemporary British Music, 1988-2013 (Part 15)
“Extra! Extra! Read all about it! White male critic reduces hard rocking female’s music to penis envy!”
Yeah, nobody wants that. And indeed, it would be selling PJ Harvey’s To Bring You My Love
far short to give such a boring and borderline ignorant summary, one that Harvey had to weather plently of for her 1993 breakthrough Rid of Me
. The real core of To Bring You My Love
lies a little left of that. Sex, being carnal satisfaction, suits Harvey just fine. Love, on the other hand, leaves her wounded and weary. In other words, she loves the penis, hates the heart.
Polly Jean Harvey, born in Bridport, Dorset in 1969, she grew up on a farm in Corscombe. After playing in a few bands in high school she attended Yeovil College and was recruited into the Bristol group Automatic Diamini. She handled saxophone, guitar and vocal duties for two years before the band breaks up in 1992. Harvey moves to London to get a degree in sculpture. Not long after arriving there she joins Ian Oliver (Who is soon replaced by Stephen Vaughn) and Rob Ellis, playing bass and drums respectively, to form the band (Yes, band) PJ Harvey. After famed DJ John Peel puts their debut single “Dress” into heavy rotation they record and release their debut album Dry
on Too Pure Records. Following that album PJ Harvey left Too Pure due to poor promotion and, following a bidding war, signed to Island Records, where they released the Steve Albini produced Rid of Me
which featured the top 30 UK single “50ft Queenie.” After the success of that record, Harvey isolated herself in rural England and wrote To Bring You My Love
“Go around I’m doing good/Get my strength from the man above.”
Two things inform the bulk of the album: PJ Harvey’s childhood musical diet of blues music and the vast, empty countryside of England. She wears her influences on her sleeves – Captain Beefheart is quoted multiple times, Lead Belly is invoked once – but she is reverent to her forbearers, it never feels like a cheap approximation of the blues, this is the real thing. To Bring You My Love
is slotted into the catch-all tag of “alternative” but it has the push and pull of blues and vintage country music. Harvey is excellent at building the tension of songs without ever delivering an obvious “rock-out” release. Songs like “To Bring You My Love” and “C’mon Billy” churn with stomach knot tight resentment. “Down by the Water” is a masterclass in the art of letting the groove carry the song, its vicious bass thrum puts the song through its paces while wire sharp violins sustain tension. “Oh help me Jesus/Come through the storm,” begs Harvey, “I had to lose her/to do her harm.” Constant religious imagery is invoked as a vague nod to giving up control to a higher power but never with a serious spiritual intent. The album only really cuts loose once on the arsenic “Long Snake Moan.” “Dunk you/Under/Deep salt/Water,” rages Harvey while her band seizes the opportunity to finally cut loose in a rollicking roar, “Over under die of pleasure […] You’ll be drowning.”
To Give You My Love
’s 3 singles all charted modestly in Harvey’s native UK but it was “Down by the Water” that ended up being her American breakthrough single. Thanks to the support of MTV and college radio it peaked at number 2 on Billboard’s Modern Rock chart. The album ended up being a success, selling well over 300 thousand copies in America alone. But PJ Harvey doesn't cater to the whims of commercial success and she would spend the next few years chasing her own ideals before finding a perfect balance between commercial and creative at the beginning of the next decade.
Next: “I wanna live/Breathe/I wanna be part of the human race.”