PJ Harvey is one of music’s most celebrated storytellers – a myth-maker whose songs are sung through the guise of many characters. On the eve of her Field Day headline show in London, Ben Hewitt gets to know the many personas PJ has inhabited over nine albums up to her latest, The Hope Six Demolition Project.
In 1994, PJ Harvey, Björk and Tori Amos were corralled into a three-way interview for Q magazine. Billed as a “tupperware party with attitude”, the trio swapped stories about being sued, shared tips on dealing with hecklers and lusted over their fantasy pin-ups (Robert Plant for Amos; Albert Einstein and David Attenborough for Björk). When they were asked what they thought the public perception of them was, Harvey didn’t miss a beat. “I’m a mad bitch woman from hell,” she quipped. “I can’t get enough sex or blood!”
Harvey had always been wary of the way she was represented by the music press. Since her debut album Dry, she’d been painted as some gruesome character from The Bloody Chamber made flesh: the grisly heroine of a twisted fairy tale who made men tremble with her vicious, violent songs. It wasn’t a reflection she recognised. “People think I’m some kind of axe-wielding bitch cow from hell,” she told NME in 1995. “I think that’s the biggest joke of all.”
Writing recently for MTV, Hazel Cills touched upon the reluctance of critics to separate Harvey’s personas from her personal life – a bizarre habit considering she’s sung of drowning children, mutilating boyfriends and fighting in the first world war. What’s also strange is that it still happens today: her recent single ‘The Community Of Hope’, with its description of Washington’s Ward 7 as a “shithole”, made one local authority figure so furious he said Harvey was “to music what Piers Morgan is to cable news”. Later it was revealed that she was only parroting the words of Washington Post journalist Paul Schwartzman, who had driven her around the area.
Harvey’s recent album The Hope Six Demolition Project has been criticised for its noncommittal political stance. Despite taking fact-finding missions to Washington, Kosovo and Afghanistan, she seldom offers solutions to the problems she finds. But however frustrating that can be, it’s fascinating to see her reach a point of near-invisibility. For a long time Harvey was an extreme physical presence in her work. She used her body as a battlefield for brutal scraps between love, lust, rage and anger, and her ideas were augmented by the wild characters she portrayed in artwork and videos. But as she’s looked outside herself for inspiration, choosing to focus on the political rather than the personal, Harvey, the master-builder of larger-than-life personas, has removed herself from the fray. It’s PJ Harvey’s Self-Demolition Project: the culmination of nearly 25 years of distorted identity ending with a vanishing act.
Dry was uncomfortably physical. It skewed traditional expectations of femininity into confrontational retorts. She dodged attempts to label her as a feminist (“I don’t like that word,” she told Melody Maker) but still attacked outdated attitudes, often with tongue-in-cheek humour rather than earnest polemic. Sheela na gigs were stone carvings of women with exaggerated vulvas, supposedly used to ward off evil spirits or cure the infertile. But Harvey was mainly tickled by the crude image of a woman “pulling her vagina open with her hands and grinning and looking mad at the same time”. And so the murky blitz of ‘Sheela-Na-Gig’ mocks sexual double-standards by playing for dirty laughs, with a farcical send-up of a nymphomaniac with as little regard for modesty as those vulgar carvings. “Look at these, my child-bearing hips,” she pants, only to be dismissed as a shameful “exhibitionist”. When NME asked if the song was “hateful”, she was disappointed. “That’s very upsetting to hear,” she said. “I don’t want it to be like that.”
’50 Ft Queenie’
(Rid Of Me, 1993)
After Dry, Harvey suffered from a breakdown so extreme she was unable to take a bath or brush her teeth. Her frazzled state of mind fed into the notoriously anguished Rid Of Me, but her first post-fame album also frequently gives monstrous spin on the caricature of her as a man-hating banshee. ‘Legs’, for example, is a Misery-like account of a jilted girlfriend chopping off a lover’s legs so he can never leave. And the clattering racket of ‘50 Ft Queenie’ is Harvey at her most devilishly playful, simultaneously mocking phallic narcissism and declaring herself the new cock-of-the-walk by crowing: “Measure me, I’m 2o inches long!” Her swaggering delivery was, she said, inspired by the braggadocio of gangsta rap, but her Queenie also owes much to cinema’s parade of unstoppable monsters (including, perhaps, the housewife-turned-giant-beastie from 1958 B-movie Attack Of The 50 Foot Woman). In the video, she stomps around like a frightful Kaiju decked in tacky rockstar shades and leopard-print coat, threatening to trample naysayers underneath her giant gold wedges.
‘Down By The Water’
(To Bring You My Love, 1995)
On her debut single ‘Dress’, Harvey had sung as a woman resentfully trussed-up to try and clumsily catch a man’s eye. Some, then, were stumped when they saw her posing on To Bring You My Love’s cover in a red satin gown (“There’s something about PJ Harvey in a dress that doesn’t quite gel,” declared MOJO). Her transformation into a lurid femme fatale – or, as she put it, “Joan Crawford on acid” – mirrored the sinister honeytrap of the music, its sultry gothic blues turned stormy with twisted passion and biblical melodrama. Just witness how much more horrifying the already-disturbing ‘Down By The Water’ is made by Maria Mochnacz’s unsettlingly glam video, swaying in her slinky gown and fluttering her false eyelashes, Harvey flirts her way through a confession of infanticide. It’s a parodic caricature of femininity as subversive as Harvey’s closing nursery rhyme-gone-wrong, when a should-be soothing is lullaby is turned into something dreadful: “Little fish, big fish, swimming in the water/ Come back here and give me my daughter.”
(Is This Desire? 1998)
In 1993, Harvey revealed her loathing for songwriters who hid behind third-person narratives. “It’s the like the writer’s trying to protect themselves by projecting their ideas onto a fictional character,” she complained to i-D. But Is This Desire? often resembles a bleak collection of short stories with its downtrodden ensemble cast, and Harvey its distanced author. She told NME that she’d “put more of myself into this album than any other”, but they jokingly noted how, rather than appearing to them as ‘Lady Darkness’, she was casually dressed, content and “ordinary”. She claimed she’d “discovered a joy and laughter and happiness again”, a fate denied to many of the album’s unfortunate characters. On ‘Angelene’, she sings from the perspective of a penniless prostitute who longs to escape her squalid life. “I see men come and go,” she murmurs over gliding guitar and gentle piano. “But there’ll be one who will collect my soul.” Her happiness emphasised a stark contrast with her doomed souls: the writer who’d learnt to “feel like a child again”, but whose creations lived in despair.
(Stories From The City, Stories From The Sea, 2001)
Rid Of Me’s cover was harsh and stark, a grainy black-and-white portrait; To Bring You My Love’s was vividly theatrical, its creator posed as a vampish siren. But on Stories From The City, Stories From The Sea, Harvey is stylish and chic: a part of modern Manhattan who belongs to the real world, rather than a strange anachronism. Determined to make a record of “absolute beauty” after her long infatuation with grim sounds and macabre ideas, Stories… was inspired by her love for New York and her life by the English coast. Its songs were sleeker, shinier and more sensual; Harvey herself seemed less unfathomable myth and more human, inspired by the giddy possibilities of love and romance. At times it thrums with fidgety excitement – the opening chimes of ‘Big Exit’, in particular, ring out like warning bells heralding an oncoming storm. “Look out ahead, I see danger come!” she yells, rushing with adrenaline; by the time she’s crunching into the sky-splitting chorus and hollering “I’m immortal when I’m with you”, she’s bulletproof.
‘Who The Fuck’
Initially, Uh-Huh-Her seemed like a backwards step. Its ugly, scratchy sound rebelled against the melodic Stories…, and reviewers suggested that Harvey was ‘angry’ again (even though songs such as ‘You Come Through’, reportedly inspired by the death of her grandmother, rank among her most tender). But in hindsight, it feels like she’s bidding farewell to the past, visiting old sounds and themes again for one last hurrah. Even its artwork hints at an endpoint: combining the polaroid on the cover with the additional self-portraits she’d been taking since she was 11 made for a retrospective This Is Your Life-style effect. And there’s something delicious, too, in her slipping into the intimidating bogeywoman role she was routinely cast as. ‘Who The Fuck’ is all spluttered indignation and scuzzy guitars that climaxes with Harvey squealing “Fuck… fuck… fuck YOU!” In 1998, she’d told NME how self-conscious she’d been of her curly hair: “I used to straighten it and straighten it. It was like wanting to be a different person!” Here, things had changed. “I’m not like other girls,” she spits. “You can’t straighten my curls!”
(White Chalk, 2007)
The power of Harvey’s previous personas often stemmed from the uneasy feeling that these otherworldly creatures had escaped from another dimension to gatecrash yours. White Chalk was even more disturbing because Harvey, rather than barging into your world, pulled you into hers: a ghostly realm haunted by bad memories, trapped spirits and strangled cries for help. She’s styled as a stiff, sullen Victorian governess; she sings like a frightened little girl. She challenged herself by learning to play the piano, banging away at the keys with ghoulish zeal, while her references to bleak landscapes and lonely melancholy evoked the creepy gothic fiction of Henry James or Emily Brontë – although ‘The Piano’ details violence so gruesome it could have been lifted from a trashy penny dreadful. “Hit her with a hammer, teeth smashed in,” she sings blankly over chilly acoustic guitars and zithers. Equally unsettling is the messy aftermath: the narrator haunted by grief (“My fingers sting where I feel your fingers have been”); her parents unmoved by her trauma (“Daddy’s in the corner/ Rattling his keys”). It ends with her repeatedly wailing “Oh God, I miss you,” shaken into a glitching, gabbling shut-down.
‘All and Everyone’
(Let England Shake, 2011)
“PJ claims she wouldn’t write anything political ‘cos she’s not intellectual enough or confident enough to understand global themes,” observed NME in 1992. Some 20 years later, Harvey’s Let England Shake bypassed trite anti-war sentiment and looked beyond contemporary conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan for something more complex: a rich, harrowing study of how a history of bloodshed has reverberated throughout England’s history. “I didn’t want dogmatism, I didn’t want finger pointing,” she said. Instead she was interested in how the “endless cycle of war” was destined to repeat itself. She pooled modern-day soldiers’ testimonies, first-hand accounts from first world war infantry and old Russian folk songs, acting as a conduit for a jumble of voices all clamouring to tell the same tragic story. “Death was everywhere/ In the air and the sounds,” she declares on the slow-burning sting of ‘All And Everyone’. Its setting on the “mounds of Bolton Ridge” is a specific reference to a landing spot for forces fighting in the brutal Gallipoli campaign, but the message is clear: whoever you are, wherever you’re from and whatever you’re fighting for, the song remains the same. Once upon a time, Harvey reported from the front lines of her personal battles; here, she’s a scholar-cum-medium speaking on behalf of the fallen.
‘Near the Memorials to Vietnam and Lincoln’
(The Hope Six Community Project, 2016)
Inviting fans to watch her record her ninth studio album at London’s Somerset House was an odd move for a reticent figure like Harvey. Those ‘Recording In Progress’ sessions were an early sign that she was planning something drastically different, but her transparency now seems like a sleight of hand. The Hope Six Community Project is arguably her most inscrutable album yet – there’ve been no interviews, no explanations, no guidelines. On Let England Shake, she was a ventriloquist for other voices, but they were a uniform chorus singing from the same harrowing hymn sheet. Here she’s a photographer presenting snapshots without comment. These are her observations from Afghanistan, Washington and Kosovo, with little of her conclusions to colour them. There’s little of her, period.
Whether her show-but-don’t-tell approach succeeds in providing any new answers to old problems isn’t clear (it’s difficult to define its success by any terms, given Harvey’s lack of stated aims for the project). But there are some beautiful, powerful moments. On the strange jaunty skip of ‘Near The Memorials To Vietnam And Lincoln’, she watches a child – one of the many thousands of tourists who visit the titular landmarks every day – taunting the birds in Washington D.C. “A boy throws out his hands, as if to feed the starlings,” observes Harvey over a gaudy, fairground-like wheeze. “But really he throws nothing/ It’s just to watch them jump.” Given that it takes place within spitting distance of two famously patriotic symbols, you’re invited to make a connection between his phantom food package and the failures of US interventions both home and abroad. It’s a reminder of a chequered track record of promising help and delivering disappointment; a warning that short-sighted meddling in other people’s lives can make them dependent on your breadcrumbs for survival. Any further exposition from Harvey would feel clunky, unnecessary, unwelcome. And if part her purpose for Recording in Progress was to pointedly make observers of us all, for an album that hints at the problems with detached observation, perhaps there was another wicked boon. People had been trying to locate the real her for over 25 years – and when she finally let them come and gawp, there was less of her to see than ever before.
Ben Hewitt is on Twitter.