P J Harvey - To Bring You My Love
IT'S HILARIOUS to think that 'To Bring You My Love' is already being hailed as Polly Harvey's long-awaited "accessible" record. Sure, the first single to come off it is only a bleak murder ballad. And the rest of the record merely alludes to kerb-crawling, death by drowning, Satanic encounters, a chilling pregnancy, rampant sex, much grieving plus loads of howling imprecations to The Good Lord Above ...
But when you temper your reactions to what you heard on 'Rid Of Me' (and its bug-eyed half-sister '4-Track Demos'), you must admit that the new record is a bit of a let-off. This one doesn't hacksaw your nervous system all the time. It doesn't make 'The Holy Bible' sound lightweight. And while it's plainly no joyride, neither does this LP napalm your tiny mind within minutes. 'Rid Of Me' was mainly a distraught picture of life at the very lip of a breakdown - the author not seeming to care how unflinching the reports were. Sometimes it was a funny record too, but this came with those songs ('50ft Queenie', 'Man-Size', 'Me-Jane') in which Polly messed with gender codes and role-playing. More often you felt that the singer was getting pummelled by circumstance and despair, losing out big time.
Compare those emotions to a song on the new record called 'Meet Ze Monsta'. An infernal force is headed her way, emblematic of a psychic battle (like on Nick Drake's 'Black Eyed Dog', or David Bowie's 'Width Of A Circle') which might formerly have wiped her out. But Polly isn't scared now, she refuses to run away. Instead her voice rises over the relentless piston-hell of the drums. "Take me with you!" she finally hollers, combining her own energy to the beast's, riding out triumphant.
You find a similar riff on 'Big Snake Moan', which finds the artist checking out her spells like an old blues singer, empowered and purposeful. Back on 'Rid Of Me' the song 'Snake' was a repulsive image of betrayal; now she uses the idea to convey pleasure and pure abandon as she pulls her lover under the sea, defying death. The last gasping seconds of this song are the most positive utterances you've probably heard from PJ ever.
This mood change is reflected in the sound of the record. In place of Steve Albini's ear-grinding production, we now have Flood (Bad Seeds, U2, Nine Inch Nails) colluding with Polly and her old musician friend John Parish, allowing the music to stay opaque and introverted when it suits. And while Polly's former band was fantastically adept, the limitations of such a trio (play loud then quiet, speed up for the chorus) has now been replaced with a fresher range of players.
So the surface detail of the record is more varied, as evidenced on 'Down By The Water'. Polly plays distorted basslines on the synth, giving an accent to the mambo rhythm while strings screech like Psycho's shower scene. The narrator of this story is withholding a terrible secret - he won't finish his sentences, won't detail his awful business with the blue-eyed girls - so it's appropriate that the music isn't so blatant.
Polly's skill at role-playing (remember how 'Dress', her first single, was all hung up about such things?) is taken to marvellous lengths. On 'Working For The Man' she's a thin-lipped apparatchik, cruising the city's wastelands, grimly noting the damage she brings to their lives. The music is booming and subterranean; like on 'Zooropa' you feel that you're in a place where reason and morality doesn't matter a cuss.
This mood prevails on 'I Think I'm A Mother'. It's a phone call from a sad individual, barely able to articulate her problems, scared of being abandoned. Everything about the song tells you it will end badly. The grieving woman in 'Teclo' (a name taken from a Morricone soundtrack) fares no better, only finding comfort in her own imminent death.
Mortality is a big thing on this record and, in this respect, Polly is closer than ever to Nick Cave and Tom Waits. The latter's 'Bone Machine' is certainly a big influence (she even nicked Waits' guitarist, Joe Gore) with its primal noises and conclusion that life is horrific, so get passionate and involved. Likewise with Cave (she stole Mick Harvey too), and his view that the closer you get to murder and mayhem, the more enlivened you become.
So it's a real joy to hear that a handful of songs on PJ's record find her hymning to the all-conquering value of love - though hardly in some cute, chocolate box vision of the word. In the title song she'll trash any obstacle, endure any damage, to reach that place. In 'Send His Love To Me' she's feeling her partner's absence, beyond tears, holding out through the elements, beseeching the heavens for a proper resolution.
The record ends in astonishing style with 'The Dancer'. Spanish guitars tremble and twang like you're on a sun-blasted Granada plain. Polly relates her story of sky-kissing ardour and invents a new musical genre (post-grunge flamenco) en route. It's a perfect depiction of love's unreasonable deal; you capitulate, senses blasted, then it ends and you're left wowing in the afterburn.
Two years ago, this would have been the pretext for another yowling, excoriating noise-storm - Polly playing Kathy Bates in the indie Misery. The faint-hearts may still feel that she's too extreme, while old fans may mourn the passing of all that claustrophobic awfulness. But mostly, 'To Bring You My Love' is an inspiring rite of passage. Her voodoo's working, alright.