Polly Jean Harvey is an English musician who’s been active in the music scene for about twenty years. Her debut album, mixing harsh, abrasive punk and blues, was one of Kurt Cobain’s favourite albums. Her following album, Rid of Me, was even darker and more twisted, with her lyrics being aptly described by Elvis Costello as being “about blood and fucking.” Since then she has released 6 more solo albums as well as a few collaborations with John Parish, and it’s her 1995 follow up to Rid of Me that I’ll be talking about – To Bring You My Love.
For anybody who has listened to her first two albums, To Bring You My Love instantly takes you by surprise. While those albums started with raw, intense punk songs driven by only drums, bass and guitar, To Bring You My Love beings with the title track, a slow, bluesy number that loses none of its aggressiveness but garners a lot of mystique. The song opens with a fade in over a repeated bluesy guitar riff with a subtle organ tone in the background. PJ’s rough, deep voice penetrates the music with her bluesy, menacing lyrics:
“I've laid with the devil
Cursed god above
To bring you my love”
The track builds in intensity before an eerie organ closes the track. It’s mysterious, and it leaves you hanging on a thread, anticipating the next track with a curiosity of what it will bring. It just so happens to be a stomping rock number called Meet Ze Monsta. Nevertheless it is quite experimental track with compressed, tribal like drumming and a throbbing, synthetic bassline. Harvey’s vocals are gut-wrenching.
Working For The Man, next track, is as different again as the first two. Beginning with a steady isolated drum beat, an incredibly fat bassline comes in. The instrumentation remains very sparse throughout, with only an added guitar flourish every now and then. Harvey’s vocals are almost whispered. It’s a very mysterious song.
You can tell at this point that To Bring You My Love is a rather eclectic album. I find that PJ Harvey is a true innovator, and this album shows her never ceasing willingness to try different things. Yet it’s always menacing, unsettling in ways, both lyrically and musically. Despite Harvey’s pursuit of experimentation and desire to try new things, (or perhaps because of it) each track remains compelling and feels comfortable. Harvey shows a mastery of different styles in her first attempt at them. Yet equally as comfortable is she in the more straight-ahead songs, C’mon Billy being one of them, an impassioned plea for a former lover to return to the narrator and their son. Some nice acoustic guitar and strings flavor this song.
I don’t want to get too bogged down in the detail of the songs, but generally the rest of the album veers between quieter, more contemplative songs with Harvey singing in a low moan, (Teclo, I Think I’m A Mother) pulsating rockers with throbbing guitar and drums (Long Snake Moan, with some fierce vocals and a drum beat very reminiscent of Led Zeppelin’s When The Levee Breaks) and more standard “pop” songs that nevertheless contain very interesting passages. The lead single, Down By The Water, is marked by a synth bass riff and the discomforting lyrics of the narrator drowning her child in a river. (I think it’s a testament how Harvey pushed the limits of what was standard in the genre that this song was THE LEAD SINGLE – a song about drowning your child doesn’t have great commercial prospects surely?) The closing track, The Dancer, features Harvey utilizing the upper range of her vocal talents combined with a quiet organ accompaniment.
To Bring You My Love owes a great deal to American Blues music, but at the same time feels like something totally different. The eerie organ, the bipolar drumming and the flamenco-tinged acoustic guitar on a few tracks all make the album a lot more than just a bluesy tribute. People have described this as Harvey’s most accessible, and while in ways this is true, I definitely don’t think it’s a nice, radio friendly album. It is experimental, but not Captain Beefheart experimental, (although Beefheart was supposed to have been a huge influence on this album) I consider it experimental in that Harvey is really pushing the boundaries of what is considered acceptable for a major artist to put out in a landmark album without alienating too much of her audience. And it obviously worked: the album sold approximately one million copies and was named album of the year 1995 by various different publications. I personally think it’s a triumph. It’s an accomplished, solid and varied album with the perfect balance between pop sensibility and the avant-garde. And that kind of thing is too hard to come by these days for us not to take notice.
Words - Adam