Automatic Dlamini Bio Clipping
PJ Harvey: A Lover's Musical Musing
By Timothy White; Billboard, August 15, 1992 v104 n33 p3(1)
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The purpose of this column is to share the excitement of discovery. There is never any shortage of projects in the music industry pipeline, but the focus here is on pivotal undertakings by established players, significant endeavors by emerging artists, work by unheralded musicians that merits closer scrutiny, or the phenomenon of performers suddenly discovering the depth of their own potential. And sometimes the column is simultaneously about all of these things, as in the case of England's PJ Harvey, a band about to play its first North American dates Aug. 11-18 after recently conquering the British independent charts with "Dry" (Indigo/Island).

The trio takes its name from singer/songwriter Polly Jean Harvey, whose marvelously undefinable 1991 "Dress" single on the Too Pure label was one of the most impressive U.K. indie debuts of that year. Melodic, clangorous, meditative, and as clinging on the dancefloor as the garment it described, the song explored the practical and sensual considerations--as well as the emotional absurdities--of a young woman who might "dress to please." If the premise sounds flimsy, the execution was anything but, since Harvey has a gift for articulating the nagging insights that lend meaning and difficulty to the politics of self-esteem. As on "Sheela-Na-Gig," PJ Harvey's ingenious second single issued last February, the composer probes the principle that morality, sexuality, desire, and attachment remain secret truths, no matter how public or "exhibitionist" any facet might seem to be.

Both of the aforementioned tracks are collected on "Dry", which has just been released in the States, and the conflicts inherent in the songs' cerebral issues and carnal urges are boldly sketched by Polly's reverberate guitar, Stephen Vaughan's libidinous bass, and the temperamental percussion of Robert Ellis. The album's conceptual axis, however, is "Oh My Lover," in which a jilted lover wrestles with arousal and rejection. The track can be perceived as heartrendingly tender or richly ironic, yet its deeply erotic spell prevails. This disquieting ambiguity is precisely the point of Harvey's songwriting, which is why she customarily declines to discuss it. She speaks out on the subject only when she sees her lyric style described (in the presumptuous praise of one British critic) as "cynical."

"No! It isn't, it isn't," states Harvey emphatically, as she talks in her parents' home in the tiny Dorset village of Yeovil--a temporary refuge while she composes the sequel to "Dry."

"Honesty," she adds, "was the most important thing around the time of "Dry": to play in an honest way and to record it as honestly as possible, in an approach that wasn't using a lot of effects. It's actually a selfish thing; it's for myself, and the fact that others are enjoying it as well pleases me."

As for the stark sensualism she bares in "Dry's" content and presentation, the 22-year-old former art student simply says, "This nakedness, it's the music's."

As she confides with surprising shyness, "The reason I started to do music instead of what I was doing before, which was sculpture, was because I feel that music is a better, more physical way to reach people. Pieces of artwork can make you think, but they don't grab you by your stomach, shake you around for three minutes, and then leave you feeling exhausted and drained."

Yet Harvey wants it both ways, jolting the passions into a fresh state of alertness and the intellect into a freer mode of intake; and she uses the work of a favorite author (William Burroughs' "Nova Express") and visual artist (Andre Serrano's "Piss Christ") to convey the kind of impact she aims to attain: "The stream of consciousness, where it just goes straight into your head and bypasses any process of seeing or judgment, and there are no barriers."

Raised in Yeovil by supportive "hippie-generation" parents who were local concert promoters, Harvey grew up feeling there were no immediate obstacles to her fulfillment. "Except," she chuckles, "I wanted to be a boy until I was about 12, because Yeovil is quite a quiet village and there weren't any other girls."

Harvey took up the saxophone at 10, playing Glenn Miller standards in the school band ("I loved it"), then hurrying home to cull R&B riffs and Captain Beefheart honks from her parent's record collection. At 18, she switched from horn to acoustic Yamaha guitar and began appearing solo in pubs. Accepting an invitation to join the group Automatic Dlamini, she toured Europe for two years.

The travel awakened her to the world beyond Yeovil ("I'd never been to clubs") and to rock beyond the Rolling Stones ("the Pixies, Tom Waits, Nick Cave"). She formed PJ Harvey in July 1991, and the subsequent British success of "Dry" has acquainted Polly with the things she wants ("to develop more as a writer on the next two albums") and doesn't ("I lived in London for six months but I couldn't stand it. I had to come back home; I need to live far from this agitation, and not to belong to the music business.").

Her most recent ponderings of intellect vs. intimate desire have occurred via the pages of French author Roland Barthes' 1977 book "A Lover's Discourse." Barthes was a literary scholar whose writings on semiology (the study of the signs and symbols underlying culture) centered in this case on the linguistics of love. In a manner echoing Harvey's songwriting, Barthes explores the inner meaning of a lover's idioms and declamations. As the author relates, the goal is an unsentimental "portrait" of "someone speaking within himself, amorously, confronting the other (the love object), who does not speak."

As Harvey sees it, the book examines "each different aspect of being in love and"--she laughs--"the suffering that goes with it. I'm quite interested in that." And if one were to examine, along Barthes' analytical lines, a song like Harvey's "Oh My Lover," the visceral, moaning sigh ("Ohhh...") that begins the track would be deemed the most direct and truthful message, with the meaning of all that follows ("...my lover, don't you know it's all right...") being far less certain.

The solitary representations of love-giving and love-taking, a stream of physical and mental sensations that defy resolution yet confirm humanity--this is the grist for the searching, momentous music of Polly Jean Harvey and band. In their first shows in venues from L.A.'s Whisky A Go-Go to Manhattan's CBGB, expect something honest, without barriers or effects, and still in the early stages of self-discovery. Yet capable of leaving the stunned listener feeling exhausted and drained.

And how, in the privacy of her head, does Polly hear the new album that PJ Harvey will commence recording this October? "As a natural move forward, taking the things that were used in "Dry" and pushing the extremities of the dynamics, the sounds, a little bit further." Out spills her secret laugh. "Also, the lyrics, I think, are a lot more extreme."