PRINT November 1996


Polly Jean Harvey

THERE’VE BEEN MORE than a few pretenders to the throne of New Rock Goddess—Courtney Love, Liz Phair, Joan Osborne, Alanis Morissette, not to mention sundry Bikini Killers, Breeders et al—but for whatever reason, nobody’s been willing to take the risk to come across as an artist with a capital “A,” a Romantic-style genius, someone possessed by her muse or her daimon, or even the hellhounds on her trail. Nobody except PJ Harvey: a nice girl from a small town near Yeovil, England, who, as the legend goes, was brought up by groovy boho parents in a house full of blues musicians and stonecutters. She flirted with art school and music, wisely opted for music, put out an album called Dry, 1992, appeared on the cover of NME with her shirt off, and generally created a furor (of approbation and otherwise). Now, three albums later—the Steve Albini-produced Rid of Me, 1993, the raw 4-Track Demos, 1993, and the Nick Cave-ish To Bring You My Love, 1995, plus a limited-edition release of B-sides—she’s giving every indication of being the real thing. Having started with a three-piece burst of raw power and pure pop joy, PJ’s looted idioms and shucked personae from album to album, going from grrrl-ish rage and genderfuck to Gothic siren, to junk-tinged lounge and folk, all without ever abandoning a solid blues bedrock. And while making the leap from critic’s darling to hipster’s darling, she’s come to resemble no one more than herself.

Which means that Dance Hall at Louse Point represents a departure of sorts in her personal trajectory: a) it’s actually part of a larger project—including a major dance piece by contemporary choreographer Mark Bruce, and scheduled for performance in 1997, with Polly Jean and a five-piece band doing the music; and b) it’s not really a PJ Harvey album at all, but a collaboration. Polly Jean (as opposed to PJ) provided words and vocals while long-standing partner John Parish wrote the music and coproduced the record. If this seems like hairsplitting, it’s not, really. Both artists get equal billing on the project. It’s the first time Parish gets to step out of the shadows; as for PJ, Dance Hall is proof positive that sometimes you have to look to the roots in order to move ahead.

On the most obvious level, of course, performing as Polly Jean represents a return of some kind (it’s her real name, after all). Taking the stage with John Parish is a marginally less obvious return: currently the guitarist, percussionist, and sometime coproducer for PJ Harvey, Parish was also the front man for Automatic Dlamini, the first band Polly Jean ever belonged to. Which brings us to her other roots or influences: Nick Cave, Tom Waits, Captain Beefheart, followed by older voices, like Nowlin Wolf and Muddy Waters. The first three are notable (and similar) in that like Polly Jean herself, they’ve sunk their roots deep in Wolf howl and rich Mud, and made them something personal: when they sing, they make the sound of the proverbial “long snake’s moan,” equal parts Delta roll, gut-bucket wail, and voodoo cry. This last is an important bit: they are, all of them, performers with personae, not so much theatrical (although that’s certainly an element of it) as spiritual. Which means that they come across like souls possessed, high priests and spirit-ridden horses all, breathing hot hellhound air, singing songs like the old gods speaking.

On Dance Hall at Louse Point you hear the blues and voodoo equally in Parish’s guitars—wail, moan, and twang—and Polly Jean’s vocals and lyrics; at least seven of the songs on the twelve-track album are pleas to a Jesus/God/Holy Ghost who’s alternately absent and close. The persona here is an expansion of the one that first appeared on To Bring You My Love: she hovers somewhere between glam blooze chanteuse and Theresa of Avila. So when you listen to cuts like “Taut” and “Lost Fun Zone,” it sounds as if the saint herself were singing her dark-night ecstasies against a backdrop of Waits-Beefheart-bent guitars and clanking percussion. It’s the same vibe that transforms “Is That All There Is?” from simple world-weariness into something like distilled despair; the same vibe that makes it difficult to tell, on “Rope Bridge Crossing” and the acoustic neo-folker “That Was My Veil,” whether Polly Jean’s chastising a lover who let her down, or a spirit who seemed far away when she needed him close.

Still, Dance Hall ends on an up note: the first words of the last song are “I believe I’m here to stay.” It’s Polly Jean serving notice that she’s signed on for the whole ride, up and down that long, muddy river.