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To hear some people talk, you’d think Polly Jean Harvey had been down to the crossroads with Robert Johnson and the devil himself, absorbed all the lust and anguish and evil a true heart can bear, and, by offering herself up to The Blues (not a style nor a genre, mind you, but a medium of pure feeling), been vouchsafed the secret of sluicing it all into your poor soul like so much water. But on her latest studio album as PJ Harvey (the first without her band of the same name), she downplays her slide guitar and the Delta-by-way-of-Dorset sound to bring you grandiose tales with implausible, often threadbare plots, exaggerated performances, and lush (if sometimes brash) orchestration, all in the service of gorgeous music and exhilarating singing. There’s a word for that, but it isn’t blues—it’s opera. To Bring You My Love, then, is Harvey’s opera record, and it comes as no surprise to learn that her version of woodshedding involves taking voice lessons.
Harvey announces her arty intentions with Love‘s cover shot, which has her decked out like a 20th-century Ophelia, slipping downstream in a red satin dress and heavy makeup. She fulfills them inside, with 10 stories of sex, love, religion, and death. How you respond to them is a measure of how much you like being lied to about things you care about. And if you listen to any sort of music, you can’t be completely hostile to the idea. Art’s intensification of experience, its ability to deceive us into thinking our lives are grander than they really are, is just one of the things that makes it better than life.
Real life, unadorned, can be inimical to high drama. If there’s one thing 1993’s 4-Track Demos (14 homemade recordings, eight of which were demo versions of songs from Rid of Me, an earlier 1993 release) showed, it wasn’t the inadequacy of Rid of Me‘s sound (although it’s become de rigueur to dis Steve Albini, nothing could have better suited Rid‘s forbidding songs than his steely production), but that Harvey’s theater demands a larger stage than Tascam can provide. For Love‘s production, Harvey engaged not only the services of one-time Automatic Rhimini bandmate John Parish, but also those of Flood, who has recently worked with U2 and Trent Reznor. (Trent’s the fellow who wants to fuck me like an animal. And—this is the wonder of mass culture—he wants to fuck you too. “Why?” you ask. Apparently some sort of spiritual quest.) While intimidating sonics only highlight the vacuity of Reznor’s writing, Flood’s industrial treatment—distorted vocals, steamwhistle percussion, assaultive bass—provides Harvey an appropriate setting for her larger-than-life yarns.
One such story that seems to have come back into vogue is the death-by-drowning murder ballad. Once typified by “The Banks of the Ohio,” it is perhaps now most familiar through Sugar’s “A Good Idea.” Harvey’s take on the theme, “Long Snake Moan,” starts with a sly “mmm, hmm,” then slams your head into a surging sea of sound. Just as you get your bearings, Harvey confirms your fears, singing, “Duck you under/Deep salt water.” Like the strongest Rid of Me tracks, it instantly forces you to accept its premise and lets you up only when you’re done. This most blues-based song on Harvey’s least blues-inspired record is, paradoxically, its best.
Dry, PJ Harvey’s Too Pure debut, declared the hybrid sources of her songcraft. Its references ranged from the Floydian chord changes of “Oh My Lover” to the South Pacific-derived “Wash that man right out of my hair” lyric of “Shela-Na-Gig.” But Love strains artifice nearly to the breaking point. Harvey’s vocal on “Teclo” sweeps into a gothic swoon as she intones, “Teclo, your death/ Will send me to my grave.” By the album’s final track, the Too Pure aesthetic has degenerated into Too Much. Amid rapidly strummed Spanish guitars, Harvey sings of “The Dancer”: “He came riding fast like a phoenix out of fire flames/He came dressed in black with a cross bearing my name.” Later this mysterious personage, who seems like a refugee from a Bergman film, invites the singer to “fly with me, touch the face of the true God.” (The last time I recall a singer urging a similar feat, it was William Shatner in “The Transformed Man.”) As Harvey begs “peace for [her] black and empty heart,” her organ chords somehow call to mind Steve Tyler’s appeal, “Sing with me, sing for the years.” Despite my liking of “Dream On,” something I’m not terribly proud of, I am forced to confess that I don’t find such moments particularly inspirational.
Most of Love‘s lies don’t flirt so casually with outright nonsense, but I still can’t quite believe them. Not the way I do the title track of Rid of Me. After two quiet, tense, airless minutes, the song explodes into “Don’t you wish you’d never, never met her?,” and panic and retort are bound together as if by a nail driven through the heart of them both. Although stylistically it’s far from the bluesiest song on the album (its final “lick my legs” shrieks are as theatrical a touch as any on Love), “Rid of Me,” like the greatest tragic blues, is animated by the belief it compels from the listener (this, in fact, is why many succumb to the fallacy of the blues as a comportment of spirit). Opera, on the other hand, is not a thing that inspires belief so much as something the listener, in order to receive certain musical pleasures, chooses not to disbelieve. Those familiar with her earlier work might ask if, as Love‘s title cut would have it, Polly Jean Harvey has really “lain with the devil, cursed God above.” Perhaps to bring you this record, but not to bring you her love.