Wednesday, December 19, 2007

[015] To Bring You My Love

Album: To Bring You My Love
Artist: PJ Harvey
Release Date: February 1995
Label: Island
Producers: Flood, PJ Harvey and John Parish

“I’ve lain with the Devil
Cursed God above
Forsaken Heaven
To bring you my love”
- from the title track

It creeps up behind you, out of the shadows, unrolling its boney fingers and placing its cold hand on your shoulder. It is the chilling “To Bring You My Love”, the opening song of Polly Jean Harvey’s third and best album of the same name. As stark, reverberating guitar guides you back towards the dark, noises crash around you, like bottles breaking unseen down a sinister alleyway or the frantic scrape of a searching metal coat-hanger slipped in a car door to gain unauthorized access. You are understandably skittish, because as they say, this is not the kind of place you want to find yourself after dark. Cutting through your fear like a hot knife through butter, a distorted Delta Blues bellow imparts from the smeared lipstick mouth of a tiny little girl from the English countryside. There she stands, this little English girl, maybe 100lbs. wet and after a sandwich, in her silky blood-red dress, caked make-up looking like Robert Smith’s little sis, jet black mane cascading down her shoulders, and she’s yelling her confessions at you, her journey through the haunted house that is the heart of man. Now, it’s your turn.

You want to accept the challenge that is To Bring You My Love because you think from the beginning that you have it figured out – the role reversal, with the strong-willed female commandeering the male art of The Blues and keeping it for her own. But that is why you fail from the first step, because PJ Harvey tricks you, dismantling what you think you know so that the parts no longer equal the sum, and instead contribute to a new whole. Harvey may have played the Angry Young Woman on her first two albums, leaving listeners spun, to great effect, from intertwining the grim realities of her diary with her perversions and fantasies, only briefly touching on the subjects tackled with force on this album, but she succeeds here because she wildly explores hyper-femininity then see-saws back to blur the gender lines and construct androgynous theater pieces with which to explore the ground that Rock & Roll was planted in. To Bring You My Love is a masterpiece of the kind of emotional ore that forms the basis of so much of today’s popular music, ready to be mined for grand performance. And perform she did, retiring the uniform of the day, and gracing the stage in ball gowns and hot-pink catsuits, inhabiting each character with creepy intent.

A woman as a vehicle for Rock & Roll has always been a potent plan of attack, but despite the hair-raising howls of those that came before her, PJ Harvey’s third album might be the greatest female-helmed pure Rock & Roll album of all time. Unlike Tina Turner and Aretha Franklin, she focuses more on the album as the art rather than the song. Unlike Debbie Harry and Chrissie Hynde, she’s not afraid to be scary. Unlike Patti Smith, she holds melody and songcraft dear. She accomplishes all of this by breaking everything down to its base essence and then reconstructing the music’s power out of the ragged pieces. In an age when the female in Rock & Roll had finally found her permanent footing on her own terms, Harvey vaulted past the field by ignoring the canon of feminism as it relates to the overall attitude toward the male of the species, and instead stole the cliché narrative elements of The Blues and recycled them from the female perspective. If the man is a rolling stone, then she casts the song from the woman-at-home’s perspective, like on “Send His Love To Me” and “C’mon Billy”, and squeeze The Blues out of the mental effects of being left behind. On the former, she waits patiently because the man said to wait, but she slowly slides to a stir crazy state, remaining for what seems like eternity, begging Jesus for his return. The latter is a harrowing plea for the father of her bastard child to return home to finally meet their son; this time, Harvey goes directly to the culprit with desperation, buttering him up with a come hither, like ‘look how I waited faithfully for you’; she works up a lather in the part of the mother, the lonely lover with the cold bed, and she sounds throughout as though she can lose the last marble at any moment.

In reimagining The Blues, Polly Jean decided to shed her band from the first two records, and work not only with new collaborators, but in new artistic shades and colors. She wanted to be somewhat faithful to the time period that The Blues came from, so the album opens with visions of the desert, like she’s back in the Dust Bowl, standing at the crossroads – this is echoed by the video for “Send His Love To Me”. Now, you’d think if you wanted to paint a picture of the hard times that birthed The Blues, you would keep producer Steve Albini around – he had handled PJ’s previous album Rid Of Me - as he is known for his dry, desolate production, but Harvey instead hired Flood, who had been working with U2 and Depeche Mode on each of their gritty reinventions from the early 90’s. Flood has a dance background, but his mixing skills are where it’s at, always featuring a sense of depth and color rarely heard during the distorted days of Grunge. Flood and Harvey together, along with Harvey’s childhood friend John Parish, stir up a muddy mess of Rock’s roots, replete with images of drowning and pleas for salvation; almost every song conjures religious tales or straight away begs for God’s helping hand. In the cold, barren night of “Teclo”, Harvey fears her grave and prays for a reprieve, while on “The Dancer”, she evokes Sergio Leone while suggesting that even if salvation comes, her “black and empty heart” might be too far-gone to realize.

The biggest stylistic shift here is the reduction of guitar, which ironically is usually the primary weapon of a Blues musician; it instead is placed on an even playing field with the bass, occasional strings and increased presence of atmospheric keyboards and full-bodied organ. And with the guitar in the backseat, Polly instead builds all the tracks from their rhythms up, with special attention paid to the throb of the songs, keeping her and the album’s sexuality palatable without the overt mentions of the past. The simmering breakthrough single in a slinky dress, “Down By The Water” is the perfect example, laying its foggy narrative of dangerous secrets over a droning bass tone and junky, click-clack percussion. The sensual, grinding churn of “Meet Ze Monsta” has Harvey begging to be swept away by the black – whether she’s talking about figurative darkness or the allure of a dark-skinned lover is left hanging – while Flood processes the guitars to the point that they come to you shriveled up, decaying into a wash of noise. Harvey is selling herself to you, oozing sex out of every pore the way Iggy Pop used to back in the Stooges days, yet another realization that Harvey is connecting with the history of the music in a primal, visceral way. The monstrous “Long Snake Moan” is easily the heaviest song of her career, tapping into the adrenaline rush of Rock & Roll through tangible volume, paralleling the intoxication of sex with the sadist pleasures of violence, bragging “It’s my voodoo working!!” The midnight delirium of “Working For The Man” echoes that thread, mumbling its moans, sighs, and come-ons over a street-lit stiff urban funk, the bass not so much rolling as pulsing, and a lyric presenting sin as a surrender, something to be saved from – like it or not – with Polly playing the hand of the savior.

The combined effect of the songs on To Bring You My Love is almost disorienting, so powerful that it shakes the listener to the core of their soul, and tempts the Devil with easy pickings. It’s that ache that makes it so lasting, as mythic as the Blues traditions it reinterprets. If Liz Phair’s Exile On Guyville inverted The Rolling Stones’ classic Exile On Main St, then To Bring You My Love inverted the Blues that The Stones had based their music on – No, more than that, PJ Harvey went back to the cotton fields and re-cultivated the soil, casting her black-hearted magic on the crop so that the Negro spirituals were altered, therefore mutating the Blues that resulted. In order to remake her own art, and to try and fill her soul with meaning, Polly Jean Harvey had to first reconstruct another Rock & Roll, one that was, no matter how unsettling and dark, new and improved.

01. “To Bring You My Love”
02. “Meet Ze Monsta”
03. “Working For The Man”
04. “C’mon Billy”
05. “Teclo”
06. “Long Snake Moan”
07. “Down By The Water”
08. “I Think I’m A Mother”
09. “Send His Love To Me”
10. “The Dancer”

"To Bring You My Love" [live-in-studio, 10.07]

"C'mon Billy" [video]

"Down By The Water" [live on Later with Jools Holland, 09.95]

"I Think I'm A Mother" [live on Sessions at West 54th St., 01.99]
a little bonus interview by David Byrne

- BONUS: "To Bring You My Love" [live at the 2003 Big Day Out Festival]
- BONUS: "Meet Ze Monsta" [live for the BBC, 1995]
- BONUS: "Meet Ze Monsta" [live on 120 Minutes, 1995]
- BONUS: "Meet Ze Monsta" [live at the 2004 Glastonbury Festival]
- BONUS: "Working For The Man" [live at the 1995 Glastonbury Festival]
- BONUS: "C'mon Billy" [live on French TV, 11.95]
- BONUS: "Teclo" [live at the 1995 Glastonbury Festival]
- BONUS: "Long Snake Moan" [live at the 1995 Glastonbury Festival]
- BONUS: "Long Snake Moan" [audio]
- BONUS: "Down By The Water" [video]
- BONUS: "Send His Love To Me" [video]
- BONUS: "Send His Love To Me" [live on Later with Jools Holland, 09.95]
- BONUS: "Send His Love To Me" [live on Letterman, 1995]
- BONUS: "The Dancer" [live for the BBC, 08.95]

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