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In sexual purgatory with PJ Harvey



A friend told me about a poet he knew who taught an adult education class. Week after week the students brought in poems about sex. Finally the poet told the class it was getting old. He noted that sex, after a certain point, is pretty much the same action for everyone, and suggested they write about something different. Like their jobs, for instance. But the students wanted to continue writing about sex. Their jobs were too personal a subject.

Polly Harvey writes a lot about sex. Specifically, the many ways in which eros literally fucks people up. Rid of Me, produced by local hotshot Steve Albini, is riddled with oblique references to sex organs, penetration, dry humping, and spiritual humiliation. Depending on whether or not you consider sexual purgatory a fun place to spend some time, this can be intriguing, depressing, or downright tedious. On Rid of Me, Harvey's songs are variously all three.

Harvey returns with drummer Robert Ellis and bassist Stephen Vaughan for the title cut, musically a tough and grinding piece of work. The band holds fast to a form dominated by bass-heavy, concussive rhythm, while Harvey drones out distorted chords on guitar with little regard for the high-end or lead work. Unfortunately, what was fresh and explosive in a song like last year's "Sheela-Na-Gig"--minimalist guitar and stripped-down rhythms beginning quietly, then suddenly erupting into a battering cacophony of drums and bass--starts to sound formulaic on many of these cuts.

Lyrically, the title cut on Rid of Me (read "you're not") unfolds like a stalker's diary. "I'll make you lick my injuries" is one of the more specific threats here, but with lines like "I'll tie your legs / Keep you against my chest," Harvey does manage to blur the line between pleasure and punishment. It's a nifty trick when she pulls it off.

In many of Harvey's fevered dreamscapes she alternates betwen suicide and homicide. Either way, she's hardly an easy date. "Did you ever wish me dead?" she asks in "Legs." The object of desire would probably be justified in answering "yes" after the spooky denouement: "I might as well be dead / But I could kill you instead."

In small doses this stuff can be surprisingly fresh, even riveting. Too much of it, though, places Harvey squarely in Lydia Lunch's worst spoken-word territory. Which is too bad, because Harvey is smarter than that. A good example of her lyrical excess is "Man-size Sextet," a violin and cello arrangement pinched from the sound track of Psycho. Trying for art, Harvey just ends up sounding artsy. Wrapping breathy, insinuating moans around her gender-twisting lyrics, Harvey only compounds the problem. Instead of sounding like a brazen sexual adventurer she comes off more like a dial-a-gal for Sigmund Freud's 1-900-SEX-LINE.

While her analyses of life on the sexual front can at times be revelatory, too much tumescent prose does tend to get dull. Next time around, Harvey might consider writing about something more personal. Like her job, for instance.

Which live onstage she's getting pretty good at. Last year the show she and her band, PJ Harvey, put on at Cabaret Metro was stiff and precise, right down to the roadie who prepared the stage by holding a tape measure up to Harvey's mike stand, carefully gauging the distance from floor to microphone. This action spoke volumes about Harvey--who certainly can't be accused of being sloppy about her career. But this rigidity also added up to a show that was fairly, to use the title of her last album, dry. When she came out to play, there was nothing in her looks that hinted at the lyrics' subterranean emotion. Poker-faced, her hair slicked back into an austere bun, thin body clad in a plain black tank top and boy's pants, she remained a remote presence. She barely interacted with her band, let alone the audience.

On her recent return trip to the Metro Harvey was in many ways more accessible and stagewise than last time around--her physical presentation, for starters, was a 180-degree turn. She came outfitted in a 50s-starlet getup of spangly low-cut evening gown, silver high heels, and rhinestone shades. Harvey, who spends a lot of interview time complaining that nobody gets her jokes, seemed to be working her new look as a goof. With this woman you have to grab the humor wherever you can. The glitter look--complete with one large, dangling star-shaped earring--also came off as a rather eloquent nod to her growing celebrity.

Joining opening band Gallon Drunk onstage for their encore, Harvey was cool but engaged. Together they were a pretty stunning sight: a sole woman amid a stageful of dark-haired men in authentic rockabilly duds and 'dos, creating a rhythm army out of maracas, tambourine, moaning harmonica, and Lora Logic sax shrieks.

During her own set Harvey smiled just a little. She said a couple things (they were impossible to understand, but it felt like a breakthrough of sorts nonetheless). For somebody so icy live this was a dramatic change, and the audience responded by smashing up to the stage.

The new material didn't seem so heavy-handed live, but what started the audience churning were several songs from Dry. "O Stella" followed by the rattling, rocking "Dress" offered a blistering one-two punch.

At its core Harvey's singing range is high and breathy, but her potent array of cries and moans can be effective when used with discretion. Live, her voice was assured and controlled, a nice change from her recent studio work. Far too often she sobs through Rid of Me's tracks like Gene Pitney's evil femme twin, way over the top with her quirky wails. Albini, ostensibly at the helm, does nothing to rein her voice in. Instead at times he funnels it through some gadget that approximates the sound of a cheap transistor radio. It all starts to seem a bit like self-indulgent, pretentious farting around.

That is, until "50 Ft. Queenie." Opening with a dirty, refreshingly untutored blues riff, Harvey bangs into a hard guitar onslaught, the song's mood and tempo falling somewhere between Ted Nugent's "Free-For-All" and Motorhead's "Ace of Spades." It's on this track that all Harvey's rank talk sounds legitimate. Except for the weirdly strained falsetto voice breaks, there's no room here for Harvey's sobbing, no time for her pinched wailing. When she yells, "Hey, I'm the king of the world. You oughta hear my song," she's vocally on the same animal vibe as Nugent and Lemmy--and I don't make these comparisons lightly.

Onstage this tune lost none of its luster. Here at last was a song that revealed the nugget of this woman--direct, focused, full of piss and unapologetic braggadocio. It's also the closest thing to rock and roll I've heard in a long time.

Harvey's prima donna streak is still alive and well--as at her last Metro appearance, she took an inordinately long break before reappearing for an encore. But Harvey can get away with this sort of star turn because to the kids that churned at her feet she is a star. Earlier in the show there was something oddly moving about watching the crowd chanting happily along to "Sheela-Na-Gig," a song about a religious totem. "You exhibitionist!" they all sang in unison, and Polly Jean Harvey, an impenetrable, unlikely idol, actually smiled back.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Paul Natkin-Photo Reserve.

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