Spin Magazine
The 90 Greatest Albums of the 90's.
September 1999

PJ Harvey - To Bring You My Love.

Before Polly Jean Harvey ordered Robert De Niro to sit on her face, before she got her voodoo up and running, she had a revelation. Sitting in a British pub near her parents' farm, watching some shambling indie-rock group, the skinny teenager was suddenly overcome by how meaningless the music was. It made her want to go up to the band and shake them, but she started writing her own songs instead. Nearly five years later, after the furiously searching early - '90s classics Dry and Rid of Me, she was ready to rattle her peers again. As the alt-rock 'revolution' was cashing in with sound-alike grunge, chirpy pop-punk, and blowjob-era Alanis, Harvey released To Bring You My Love, a growling, entrancing, blues-wracked vision that made rock's artistic potential feel limitless again. The critical acclaim was deafening. Then everybody bought the Candlebox album.
Not that To Bring You My Love flopped - it sold about 200,000 copies, pretty good for an atmospheric exploration of the extremes of emotion and desire. (The single 'Down By The Water' is a fuzzed-out creepiest about a smothering mother who may have just drowned her 'blue-eyed girl'). It left even superstar artists humbled. Courtney Love deemed Harvey 'the one rock star who make me know I'm shit.' Even today, No Doubt frontwoman Gwen Stefani calls the album ' so strong that it scares me .'
To Bring You My Love's forbidding perfection didn't come without a cost. Harvey calls the making of the record the most gruelling experience of my life.' She was torn between proving herself worthy of the rock-god locker-room (and could she have the locker next to Bob Dylan, please?), and wondering if she really wanted the attendant fame. She also felt that 1993's Rid of Me had taken her abrasive guitar sound and 50-Foot Queenie persona far enough. 'I was on the rack emotionally.' Harvey says. 'I was having a particularly hard time coming to terms with who I am.' So, in search of new direction, she did what any Goth-inclined artist who used to pull dead fetuses out of the family sheep would do: She studied opera and read American Psycho.
Then, in a big old barn, she wrote some songs on the keyboards and sent them to her band - old Automatic Dlamini bandmate John Parish, avant-garde guitarist Joe Gore, Captain Beefheart sideman Eric Drew Feldman, and producer Flood (U2 / Nine Inch Nails) - thinking it was probably crap. But 'from the moment I popped the cassette in', Gore says, 'I knew this was going to be a phenomenally great record. When a lot of artists try to evoke the emotional power of blues and gospel, it comes out as lame-ass imitation. Polly doesn't waste any time replicating the gestures, she just taps into the music's deepest core.'
A consummate auteur who once jokingly whacked Gore with a cane for playing a few extra notes, Harvey wanted to 'be in complete control - who was playing, what, where, when, and how. We were in the studio for more time than I 've ever spent, feeling just exhausted.' She was in tears almost daily, and the mood was tense. Gore remembers with a laugh: 'I was speaking to {Red Hot Chilli Peppers bassist} Flea on the phone, and he said, 'Tell Polly I'm such a big fan that I would swim over there ocean just to play one note for free.' When I told John Parish later, he said that after just five minutes with all of us, he'd swim right back.'
Where Rid of Me was about noisy exhortations to 'bend over Casanova!' To Bring You My Love creates an equally disturbing mood with an understated sound both raw and composed. Singing as man and woman, Harvey takes her folklorish lyrics from birth to destruction, limning maternity as both magic and curse. The title track's withering emotional crescendo - just a simple, sinister riff with the occasional vibes and organ flourish - is ostensibly about the sacrifices the narrator made for a lover, but it's also a metaphor for Suffering for Your Art. 'I've travelled over dry earth and floods, hell and high water,' Harvey proclaims, a little vibrato tease at the end winking at such pretentiousness.
Though Harvey may now question that sort of commitment (last year's Is This Desire? was considerably less ambitious), To Bring You My Love is the unforgettable sound of someone who plays the dozens with God and the Devil on a daily basis. And Harvey, ever the perfectionist, can't even bring herself to listen to it. 'I would love to,' she says, 'but I'd just remember how some guitar part caused me grief and wish that I could change it.'

Sia Michel