PJ Harvey

Hi everyone! Here we are at the beginning of something quite beautiful! This is ZaRecords’ first guest appearance post! My dear friend Maria, whom I’ve been referencing in many posts, and who provided the inspiration for this blog with her own ZaBooks venture, wrote me a letter. You see, I told her how I feel about PJ Harvey – the way I feel about Kate Bush as well, wink-wink, nudge-nudge: respectful, fascinated, but suffering from an acute lack of wordless, visceral comprehension. My mind tells me I get what’s going on, but that’s where the communication stops, and I perceive that as a fault on my part. I decided I needed help with PJ Harvey, and she has provided just that. I could not make her adhere to the way I write these things, focusing on one particular album, so what we have here is an overarching perspective on PJ Harvey’s entire career, peppered with examples and entirely effective. So, without further ado, I give you the wonderful words of Maria Ștefana!

Dear Mircea,

I will talk to you about PJ Harvey and I will do so pretending this is a letter because really I am writing this for you and I’ll pretend there’s nobody watching because I have just discovered – talking about music makes me shy… Because I know nothing about it, really and I have mainstream taste and a collection of platitudes and an obsessive approach towards songs I like, which is hard to justify. And also, this has taken a shitload of time to write and is going to take a shitload of time to read as well, I warn you.

So, dear Mircea, I apologize for the teenage journal vibe of this text I’m writing. I had to choose between being sober and coherent and distant or appearing as a halfwit but telling what I feel is the truth. I chose the first option first, not knowing there is a second one, and it was so dry and foreign and strange that I discovered this second way and I hope it works.

I will try to explain to you why I love PJ Harvey so. PJ Harvey’s name is Polly-Jean; you knew that, but I’ve always found this fantastic, that she’s called Polly-Jean. She’s probably embarrassed, called herself PJ to appear tougher, to make the world forget about that milkmaid name, but still, Polly-Jean lurks nearby, always. She hasn’t changed it to Gudrun, it’s not lost forever. There’s a girl behind PJ and PJ knows it and the world feels it and this is really the essence of why I love her. But I should probably speak about her music and not her name.

I discovered her at 14, I think. It was one of those discoveries I made myself, on MTV UK, where they had one summer of intense It’s a Perfect Day, Elise. The year was 1998 and she had a huge career behind her already, so this hardly makes me a PJ connaisseur… It’s a Perfect Day, Elise, is still the PJ that everyone knows, sufficiently toned down to be loved by your average modestly pretentious music listener, not detestable by the masses and I still think it’s a great great song. What had got me first was that rhythm, the haunting thumping and then her airy voice that was still somewhat sardonic and harsh. That line, “Listen Joe, don’t you come here again” just opens up a whole character; you just see the girl uttering it, the look of spite on her face and her indifference and arrogance. And then, right after, the seraphic “White sun scattered all over the sea“, at the beginning of the following chapter, setting the scene of the perfect day of the shooting. There’s something like a choir in the background also, so the serene scenery is taken to the next level and you feel that you’re in the killer’s head, having flashes of details of the world’s magnificence once he knows he’s doomed. Because, maybe you have already noticed it, with all the names and descriptions in her songs, she often makes up characters. These girls she’s talking about, these men, are a gallery of stories and have mysterious connections between them. Now, I know what you are going to say, but I feel that the lyrics never overpower the melody, she doesn’t speaksing. Rather, the melody and the lyrics make up the story together, because there is irony and seriousness and a mood in the instruments and it rounds up the message perfectly. So here’s A Perfect Day, Elise, my first PJ Harvey:

Just a few months later, her 1993 album Rid of Me was the first tape I ever bought out of my own money and at my own initiative. And together with Bjork and the likes it kinda saved my sorry ass, because who are you going to identify with when you’re 14 and bookish and too horribly shy to talk to boys, especially the one you like, and therefore too bizarre to have friends? Thankfully, you are going to want to become PJ, not Baby Spice. That album is of a fury, strength and insanity so brave that it never comes across as hysterical, just self-assertive. Also, not one ounce of vulgarity: where Courtney Love was a slut, for example, PJ is elegantly ill at ease. She comes across as someone who has consciously decided to make a racket because it is the only logical way to go and the only way to get what she wants. Because otherwise, really, she would be too polite. The meditative “I might as well be dead, but I could kill you instead” at the end of Legs, on the album, is very indicative of what I mean. Take also the Man-Size Sextet: it starts with an expectant guitar and an almost inaudible voice, but this all changes to chaotic riffs and her voice hitting notes that are not very pretty to the ear and it all serves a greater purpose: the tiny girl becomes man-sized. She knows that at some point she will not have to shout anymore because “you can hear you can hear her now”. And her prediction turns true, since by the end of the song, her voice is just as quiet as in the beginning, but now you can hear her very very clearly. All this, she has accomplished in less than 4 minutes. Here is a performance of the song from 1992 and also, for your enjoyment, the way she plays it in 2007 – controlled, confidently, beautifully, since the girl need not shout anymore – in the video right after this one:

Eventually, I managed to discover Is This Desire, as well, in 2001, while in the States, walking barefoot through woods on the banks of the Hudson river. Sounds romantic, but it was stupid, I almost got bitten by a snake. Is This Desire is a more peaceful album, with lots of stories intertwined, about girls called Elise, Leah, Angelene  and a reference to St. Catherine (in The Wind), all different variants of womanhood and such accurate sympathetic portraits that I couldn’t help but feel that I knew one of each. If you want to begin to understand what PJ Harvey is all about, maybe this is the album to start with, it’s like “an introduction to the mind of PJ”. A track of pure, exuberant, unpretentious joy is The Sky Lit Up:

The reason why I left behind a memorable track like Rid of Me, is because I wanted to talk about the concert I saw in 2001. I know, this all is not very coherent, but I warned you. Right after the snake incident and right before the two-planes-over-the-World-Trade-Center-incident, I went to a PJ Harvey concert at the Hammerstein Ballroom in Manhattan. Rid of Me was a moment of pure and true bliss, and here is the way she sang in 2001 this track from 1993:

It is, as I remember and I see from this clip, a climax of concentration, of tension that she plays while effortlessly keeping the whole house at the tips of her fingers. She doesn’t need theatrics; it’s just her voice and her guitar and her presence that is so powerful. These lyrics are so tricky, I find, they can sound quite emo-ish and immature if played over-emotionally or as a joke. But she finds the perfect balance between the heavy mood of her guitar and the over-the-top rawness of the words and her extremely focused self and it never becomes too much, it’s never a circus display. As a spectator there, and as a viewer today, I am transported and attentive and awake. I find this is a remarkable feat.

OK now, I feel that if I want to talk about my two true favorites, I need to skip over some time and maybe talk to you later about Stories from the City and A Woman, A Man Walked By, so I don’t make this post a novel. As everyone knows, the first great surprise from PJ Harvey was her album White Chalk. It took me about two months to get what the hell she was doing being so melancholic and silent and unextraordinary. But to my great luck, I had to ride a lot of trains at the time and I sort of started listening to the album more carefully. And I had this enormous gigantic shock: White Chalk was an album about herself. She had given up the guitar and taught herself how to play other instruments, given up the big voice and made the bravest album yet. She was fragile in her piano skills, her voice is fragile because she decides to sing mostly in falsetto and the emotions are fragile and deep. Every time I listen to this album as a whole I get teary eyed, not because it implies some kind of tragedy (I have the intimate conviction that it is an album about an abortion, but maybe it’s not that)  but because I can’t think of how vulnerable you must become once you put yourself out there like that. From time to time we almost get to see glimpses of Polly Jean.

I don’t know if you remember, but I decided that Cristi [editor’s note: Cristi, Maria and I were students together and have remained very close friends] absolutely needed to listen to this album and I don’t think I ever explained why. It was because we had had lots of talks about women and feminism and truth and for the first time I felt that I had found a way to show what might be the depths of a femininity that was discreet and authentic. None of the female characters in the plays I had ever read or seen, or in the novels I knew had had this power before, so I wanted him to understand what I meant when I said I didn’t like most women. Most women are not like her, that’s why. I also thought it might help him in his work. It might also help you in your work: take my advice, if you ever want to create a profoundly accurate and intelligent female character, mold it after PJ Harvey in White Chalk.

Check out this performance of Silence.

Her voice sometimes slips and becomes the voice of a child and I feel like holding her and my stomach churns… And the lucidity and undramatic tones of that “though you never wanted me anyway” break my heart. I feel that truer words were never spoken and there is no other way to say “though you never wanted me anyway”. I feel that a big part of this album is also about the things you never dare say, about little fantasies that never come to light because you are proper and neat and it’s only natural she should have a song called “Silence” on it. There is a whole world that just sits, imagined, behind allusions and dimpled smiles. And this is why I’ve been saying that she is the contemporary Virginia Woolf. This is an album that needs to be listened to all at once, I think, in one big piece. Patiently and respectfully, because I can’t imagine what it took for man-size PJ Harvey to make a song in which she shouts “Oh God I miss you” – The Piano:

Check out The Devil as well:

Just when I had grown accustomed to the idea that that album was a one-time feat of raw honesty, (in the meantime she released A Woman A Man, which I loved, but was quite different and experimental), she struck again with Let England Shake. I can’t tell you how many times I cried like an idiot in the street and on trains listening to that album. This woman actually sat.down.and.tried.to understand.war and she talked to veterans and spent time in libraries doing historical research on the First World War and after that she gave this whole immensely heavy amount of information form and melody and words and emotion. I can’t convey how extraordinary I find this approach. The Virginia Woolf analogy goes on because it made me understand why Virginia Woolf was so horror stricken and pained and driven crazy by war. Actually, rather than “understand” – feel, acknowledge and experience it personally. It’s not U2, it’s not soppy Michael Jackson, it’s a reconstitution of war, war conditions, of marches and what it means for the women and what it means for the old people and the soldiers themselves. And it never, at any point, lectures about politics and why it’s not good to fight. Also, I understood for the first time that my life and the building I live in and the fields I eat from and the hills I see in the distance are imbibed with the violence of past fights. I don’t know how to explain this, it’s almost tangible and makes me shudder. Here is On Battleship Hill:

I think her voice at the beginning of the song is a rendition of those Victorian songs the accomplished girls used to sing at parties while playing the piano, I think that’s the source. Actually, for a lot of the album she transforms songs from the beginning of the 20th century. On my first listen, my favorite by far was a “march”, called “The Glorious Land”:

The poetry of this album is staggeringly beautiful, there are several lines that have completely caught me off-balance and that haunt me still: “Jagged mountains jutting out cracked like teeth in a rotten mouth” or “Death was everywhere in the air, when you rolled a smoke or told a joke it was in the laughter and the drinking water”  or “Flesh quivering in the heat”. On this album, her voice is that of a narrator and a traveler and a soldier and she has never sounded truer I think. She is not afraid of clichés, she has pushed cynicism aside, and she remains a rockstar and in my opinion the most original of them. She innovates continuously and explores and if Bjork I don’t understand so much anymore, PJ Harvey just struck the most hidden chords of my heart with her last albums. I will end with the clip for The Words that Maketh Murder:

As you know by now, femininity is not a notion that I generally hold dear to my soul or appreciate. More often than not, I am appalled at everything it implies. However, PJ Harvey has come to represent to me everything that lurks and swamps and turns around in the female brain and body. I am a bit uncomfortable speaking about this, but I feel that I couldn’t put it otherwise: it’s about not wanting to be vulnerable but in the end coming to terms with it, it’s about being elegant and contained and loving intelligently and intimately and powerfully, with a blindness to the outside world. And it’s also about being knowledgeable and informed and honest even when it hurts and endangers the persona you have created. It’s about never being weird for weirdness’ sake. And everything else.

Are you not in love yet? [editor’s note: Yes, yes I am.]

6 thoughts on “PJ Harvey

  1. This was so beautiful and true, I actually put off reading it because I knew it would be shiny and I’m a pleasure-delayer, but it was more heart-breaking than I thought it would be.
    It’s also fascinating how we see and choose to like different sides of her – of course my personal history with PJ is not nearly as long or as intimate as yours. For example, I would totally have chosen Down By the Water as the epitome of the ’90s PJ, I would have spoken at length about Stories from… (especially This Mess We’re In and You Said Something) and of course, the most conspicuous difference, White Chalk is still foreign and a non-PJ album to me.
    So beautiful, Stefana, please do this again!

    • Hey, thank yoooou! I did think about you when I omitted the exact same songs you mention and I was very sorry to do so, but can you see the length of this thing? :)) I felt like choosing the most personal ones, the ones that I find it more difficult to talk about – though I must admit there is a third category, the ones I don’t even dare to listen to, especially not talk about – most of them on White Chalk. I feel such warmth towards this album and I think the way it works is – once you’ve listened to it enough, it just clicks. And then you become obsessed :)) And I am SO waiting for your Ani Di Franco post!

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