Thursday, April 2, 2009
A Woman A Man Walked By
PJ Harvey & John Parish
Years ago, a male, heterosexual friend confided that he would do Morrissey if given the opportunity--he loved his music that much. Courtney Love, on the other hand, once said that while her girl friends were lusting over male rockers, she, instead, wanted to be them. My feelings about PJ Harvey are a combination of the two (though mostly the latter). There is no other musician, not even my beloved Thom Yorke, that gets to me like Polly Jean. She is a true original--her voice, her music, her lyrics. Nick Cave sang about her: "With a crooked smile and a heart-shaped face, comes from the West Country where the birds sing bass, she's got a house-big heart where we all live, and plead and counsel and forgive."
But for me there's always been something else about Polly Jean. Poet Audre Lorde wrote "My fullest concentration of energy is available to me only when I integrate all the parts of who I am, openly, allowing power from particular sources of my living to flow back and forth freely through all my different selves, without the restrictions of externally imposed definition." How difficult it is to truly be who we really are--to bring all of our seemingly contradictory selves to the surface. Polly's music has always captured the complexity of human nature beautifully. On a more personal level, from the time I was barely out of my teens her music helped me acknowledge those parts of myself and resist any perceived constraints.
Almost every interview describes her as a "slip of a girl," painfully shy, soft-spoken, and polite. Yet her music is raw power-- her voice deep and resonant, her playing fierce. Despite her diminutive frame, she is no delicate flower. But it isn't simply that she's this small woman who plays powerful music. She plays real music. And despite her ever changing persona (the combat-booted riot girl of the early 90s, the fake-eyelashed vamp of To Bring You My Love, the Victorian-era pianist of White Chalk), there's an authenticity to her music because she's never fit into any box.
She's the author of '50 Foot Queenie,' a song with more bravado than anything written by Mick Jagger, Robert Plant, or any rapper ("glory, glory, lay it all on me, 50 foot queenie, 50 and rising, you bend over, Cassanova, no sweat, I'm clean, nothing can touch me") but also the author of 'It's You' ("when I was younger I spent my days wondering to whom I was supposed to pray--it's you.") And neither sounds like a put-on. You surely believe her when she sings "can't you see my pocket knife, you can't make me be your wife" as well as "could you be my calling?" on the same album. She can pull off the line "lick my legs I'm on fire," as well as "I envy to murderous envy your lover." She is the victim, the perpetrator, the innocent bystander. She is in love with love, and she is a woman scorned. She is tender and sweet, melancholy and mournful. She is bruised and broken, she is cold and withholding. She is in complete control of her sexuality. She is waiting for her savior on a horse. She blows the dichotomy of virgin/whore, good/evil, weak/strong out of the water. She, and her music, and all of us, are all of these things. She may be a mere human, but she masquerades as a goddess.
It is in this context that I listened to A Woman A Man Walked By, her 11th musical offering (if you include 4-track demos and the brilliant Peel sessions) and her second full-length collaboration with her friend John Parish (following 1996's Dance Hall at Louse Point). Admittedly, I have high expectations whenever Polly releases an album (perhaps expecting Polly to express the innermost workings of my soul is a bit much). But I'm rarely disappointed. I don't need to LOVE everything she does, I just want to feel something different. Polly's music can be challenging, and AWAMWB is challenging for sure. But, more importantly, she always appears to be challenging herself, whether it be her voice (as on the album White Chalk--which initially made my skin crawl), or by writing more formulaic pop/rock tunes (Stories from the City, Stories from the Sea--one of her most acclaimed/commercially successful records, although not my favorite. I'd take the dead lovers/broken characters of Is This Desire, Uh Huh Her, or To Bring You My Love over Stories any day.)
With Polly's own music, her sweet melodies often belie acidic lyrics or vice-versa. However, her collaborations with John Parish are like a dysfunctional relationship where each partner brings the other further down. They seem to feed off of each other to create even more ominous or distorted moods. In an interview with LA Weekly about their latest collaboration, Polly concurred "What I always try to do vocally with what John presents to me musically is to match the environment that that piece of music is inhabiting, and strengthen it more. So I just absorb the feeling of the music that is given me...What I do vocally always has to be absolutely together with the music in that they were made for each other and you cannot separate one from the other. "
She's made the creepiest and most inaccessible music of her career with John, but it totally works. This is not safe musical territory. However, I'm hesitant to use the word "dark." I mean, of course it's dark (that's sort of redundant with Polly), but the darkness isn't literal (not even the murderous lover of Black Hearted Love), it's purely visceral. It's about conveying these very personal emotions. This is not an album of out of tune keening that's been labeled 'art rock' and lauded by pretentious music critics to boost their indie cred. For me it's all about how the music makes me feel.
I have nothing against a well-crafted pop song, on the contrary, and I especially love a good lyric. However, when it comes to music that "owns my soul," as my niece Keighlyn would say, I need a fair dose of dissonance, and perhaps even a little pain, with my melody. Maybe it's because I live a well-ordered life, and masquerade as calm, cool, and collected (all those who know me well can roll your eyes now--I swear, people really think that!), but I find the chaos of Polly and John cathartic. It's more authentic than, I don't know, "I Wanna Hold Your Hand."
The album opener, 'Black Hearted Love,' is vintage PJ Harvey, with loud guitars and her voice back to her own deep register, not the bastardized sweetness of her previous album. It's one of the most violent songs about being underestimated that I've ever heard: "When you call out my name in rapture, I volunteer my soul for murder." It's one of my favorite tracks on the album, but also one of the most familiar. An ominous game of hide and seek dominates 'Sixteen, Fifteen, Fourteen.' It's as if 'Dance Hall at Louse Point' was being played in Appalachia or rural Ireland. The garden (as in "there is no laughter in the garden") is a recurring theme in her lyrics across albums. There is, in fact, a photo in the liner notes of Polly play-shrieking at John handing her an apple.
'Leaving California' finds Polly back to her falsetto, but it's the perfect complement to John's funeral dirge. 'The Chair,' about a dead child, another recurring theme, is probably my least favorite, but it's only Wed (and the album came out yesterday!) There's something very jazzy and Radiohead Kid A/Amnesiac about it.
'April' finds her playing with that voice-- initially a cross between a croak and a keen (I picture Snow White's evil step-mother in her disguise as the old woman with the apple). "April I feel you leaving, I don't know what silence means, it could mean anything." Then she unleashes that voice: "April, April, that I'm walking that I'm watching, your rain overcomes me." It's utterly perfect.
The music of the titular 'A Woman A Man Walked By' definitely matches the lyrics : "He had chicken liver balls, he had chicken liver spleen, he had chicken liver heart, made of chicken liver parts, lily livered little parts....but I wanted to explore the damp alleyways of his soul." Then, in a most terrifying growl (think Regan from the Exorcist), "I want his fuckin' ass." These two minutes of musical and lyrical brutality are followed by the frenetic instrumental 'The Crow Knows Where All The Little Children Go' which evokes Tom Waits in a boxcar.
'The Soldier,' a lovely, lilting ballad, begins "I imagine I'm a soldier walking on the faces of dead women." (And it's another banjo tune to boot.) 'Pig Will Not' starts with a howl that turns into a chorus of "I WILL NOT!" Phrases like "that rubbish inside your rotting mind" are punctuated by Polly barking like a dog. (I almost fell asleep on my second listen last night until I came to this song!)
'Passionless, Pointless' is an understated, unsentimental, yet devastating portrayal of a disintegrating relationship ("you slept facing the wall and you wanted less than I wanted.")
The album's closer, the spoken word 'Cracks in the Canvas,' comes too soon, after only 36 minutes. Polly sings "Dear God, you better not let me down this time."
And no, she hasn't.