Thursday, September 24, 2020

To Bring You My Love

I remember specifically the first time I heard To Bring You My Love twenty-five years ago. I was visiting an ex-roommate’s new apartment. We had spent years building a friendship based on comic books and music, something that has never changed. We were hanging out in his room. He had just picked up the CD and knew I would want to hear it.

It wasn’t the first time I had heard PJ Harvey, of course. When we lived together he had purchased all three of her prior albums, and I had seen the few videos that MTV played on 120 Minutes. While I liked Dry and Rid of Me neither had really captured me as a fan at that time. But something about To Bring You My Love resonated immediately. The sound grabbed my ear in a way her previous efforts had not. I probably couldn’t have told you that day that this would become one of my desert island albums, but I knew I was instantly in love.

I don’t have the language to describe it in musical terms, and I realize that so much of what I love about it is personal and subjective. The word that comes to mind for much of the album is resonant. Polly’s voice is deep and echoing, vulnerable and powerful at the same time. The rhythms that underlie this album, on guitar as well as the drums, feel disjointed to me with emphasis in unusual places. I want to say syncopated, but my musician friends may disagree. The bass notes rumble with distortion, reverberating in the chest like a broken heart.

But for me it is not just the sonic qualities that make the album special. Through her lyrics and imagery PJ creates a mythic landscape worthy of Faulkner and O’Connor, gothic and rural in texture. Depending on the song Polly embodies the wronged woman, or maybe an angel working for God, or maybe a woman imbued with magic who you believe has her voodoo working. There is mourning: for lost relationships, lost children, and a loss of faith. She begins the album by telling us she has laid with the devil and by the end you not only believe her, you realize it’s the devil who is in trouble. There is righteous power in her voice, a feminine power, that of the goddess. When she says ‟I think I’m a mother,” I hear her stating not a biological fact (though that is certainly implied), but invoking the Mother who is the matrix of creativity, as well as destruction.

On that first listen at my friend’s apartment I remember saying to him, ‟I think she’s been listening to a lot of Nick Cave.” That wasn’t meant as a criticism or complaint. In addition to there being a sonic resemblance Cave, at that point in his career, had spent a lot of time creating music in a similar narrative world. For whatever reasons, this is a world that speaks to me. Some of it is, no doubt, just the movies and books I’ve been exposed to. Some of it is having grown up in a northern Appalachian home with our own folk tales of love and murder and angels and devils. It’s a world I feel in my bones.

Not long after this PJ and Nick recorded a duet version of the classic folk tune Henry Lee as part of his Murder Ballads album (the internet tells me Henry Lee, like many traditional ballads, has many different versions, and is based on a tune called Young Hunting). In the video PJ and Nick are dressed in matching black suits, emphasizing their shared traits. The video fairly sizzles with sexual tension and not long after they engaged in a brief love affair in real life. Nick managed to get a lot of songs out of it for his next album, The Boatman’s Call (well worth your time to listen to), while Polly, like with most things in her personal life, simply never talked about it.

This was also a period where PJ was experimenting with her stage persona. During Dry and Rid of Me she typically performed wearing basic black jeans and leather jackets, with her hair pulled back severely and very little makeup. To Bring You My Love was kind of her Glam period, in dress if not in content. On the album cover and in the video for Down By the Water she has big hair and bright red lipstick that matches her shimmery ballgown. In concert she would sometimes wear gold catsuits, or a bright pink bodysuit and gaudy fake eyelashes. Anyone who knows me knows I’m a sucker for stage costumes, as my love of Bowie and Alice Cooper and Adam Ant, among many others, attest to. The live clips from this era are some of my favorites of hers.

From Hooligan Magazine

I’m sorry to say I didn’t get to see PJ on that tour. If my research is correct she has only ever played the Pittsburgh area twice in her thirty year career: once supporting Live at Star Lake (or whatever it was being called at the time), and once supporting U2 at Mellon Arena. I have seen her several times since then in Washington DC. My first time was for her next album, Is This Desire?, at the 9:30 Club. I saw her twice when she was touring for Stories From the City, Stories From the Sea, shows which bookended her jaunt with U2. The first of these ranks among my top concert experiences ever. In late 2000 PJ knew she was going to be touring with U2. She wanted to break in a new live band. Rather than mount a major solo tour she played a few, small, and relatively unannounced shows at small venues. I was on a PJ mailing list at the time and found out about a show at the Black Cat in DC, and somehow manged to score tickets. The Black Cat, while having a history of some pretty amazing shows, is essentially a small bar. I stood about three feet from the stage and about five feet from PJ. She brought me, and everyone else in the room, her love that night.

The next time I saw her was about ten months later with the same band at the 9:30 Club the night before 9/11. I remember reading a statement from her at the time that she had been awakened in her hotel room by what turned out to be a plane crashing into the Pentagon.

A trait PJ shares with some of my other favorite artists, most notably David Bowie and Nick Cave, is her willingness to experiment and never stand still with her music. Her career has been a constant change of sound, ideas, and presentation. This keeps an artist from getting stale, but also runs the risk of losing fans if they veer too far from made you love them in the first place. While I am still interested in PJ’s career, and will no doubt own whatever she releases next on the day it comes out, I do fully admit I have not been a big fan of her last few albums. She hasn’t done anything to just drive me away, but her output has not spoken to me in the same way as in the past. I’m a different person now, and so is she. The next album may be my favorite thing ever. Or not. I’ll still be there with her in some capacity.

While I have not been as enamored of her later work she has recently been giving new life to some of her old. This summer saw the release of the Demo versions of her first album, Dry. These were recorded by Polly on a 4-track recorder in her home studio, I believe before she had a recording contract. They are sparse, and bring a new experience to these seminal and formative songs. This not the first time we have heard her demos. My memory tells me that she was, ultimately, not happy with the production of her second album Rid of Me and not long after its release she also released and album entitled simply 4-Track Demos, featuring her own recordings of most of the album (plus a couple of extras that didn’t make the cut.

This year is the twenty-fifth anniversary of To Bring You My Love, and a couple of weeks ago she released the demo version. What struck me most upon listening to it was just how fully formed it was in this early raw version. For many of the tracks, most of them actually, the differences between this and the official release are incredibly subtle. I can tell these are different vocal tracks, but mainly because this is one of the albums I’ve listened to most in my life. The guitars and drums are nearly identical. The biggest difference is on the final song of the album, The Dancer. On the demo version the guitar has a Spanish Flamenco tone and rhythm, which was replaced by a more droning, quickly strummed electric guitar. What was weird when I heard this though was that I had to actually go back and check to make sure I wasn’t imagining this. The Flamenco guitar was indeed not present on the version I was familiar with, but somehow it had been implied by the rest of the song to such a degree that I imagined hearing it, so uch so that the Demo version, while different, still sounded like something my brain already knew. Now, by this point of her career Polly had access to better equipment and had more studio experience than with demos for Dry, and that probably accounts for a lot of the fidelity of this project, but I think a lot of it was simply the strength of her vision of what this album was meant to be from very early on.

In some ways I’m disappointed with the Demos version. I was expecting something more raw, or something in a more formative state. It’s so close to the studio album that only someone really, really familiar with it can really hear the differences. I guess I am that person, and digging through the subtleties of this has been rewarding, just in a different way than what I expected. It is insight into the process of one of my favorite artists, and taking it along with the demo versions of PJ’s first two albums it’s fascinating to see how quickly she grew, as a songwriter and musician as well as in confidence and skill.

To Bring You My Love was a critical success, if not a giant financial one. At the end of that year it was celebrated as the ‟Best Album of the Year” by the majority of the music press. I remember seeing PJ on many music magazine covers (remember those?).  MTV, who I’m sure played the video for Down by the Water at least twice nominated it for ‟Best Female Video” at their annual awards show. But that was the year of Alanis Morrisette and Jagged Little Pill and no one else stood a chance to get that little astronaut statue.

Twenty-five years later it's still an album that is lodged in my heart and brain. Like all of the music we claim as our own, the music that defines portions of our lives, my thoughts and feelings about it are wrapped up in things beyond the songs. It became a part of the soundtrack of my life at that, simply because I played it so much. It still reminds me of specific people and places and events. Playing now involves a little bit of time travel to a special time.

Thanks, Polly.

To Bring You My Love on Spotify

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