Sunday, 16 October 2016

A Journey with a Singer, Part 1

On the 30th of this month I will drag Ms Formerly Aldgate to the Brixton Academy where she will have to put up with the practical expression of my long-term devotion to the Queen of Dorset, namely, attending PJ Harvey’s gig there. I will weep and make an idiot of myself during various songs, and she will look at me with pity (Ms FA, not Polly, who will have other things on her mind).

Fandom is a curious phenomenon, but although I know why I find Ms H’s music so moving, it’s hard to put that into anything anyone else may appreciate. There are other performers I admire (the sainted Diamanda, the blessed Siouxsie, the great Kate – all women, oddly enough), but with PJ it’s different. It’s partly the Dorset connection, knowing that so much of the landscape of her imagination is the same as mine (very specifically so, in some cases). It’s partly how she has changed, at the same time (though not necessarily in the same directions) as I have changed. And it’s partly the nature of the work itself, deepening and growing over the course of twenty-five years. It seems ridiculous that I should feel such a sense of connection with someone I’ve never met, and I mentioned this to my spiritual director. ‘Why?’ parried SD with his usual breeziness. ‘You’ve never met Our Lord or St Catherine. Why is this any different?’ Well, perhaps only out of considerations of propriety, as Our Lord and St Catherine, by the nature of their work, make themselves available for such connection, and a pop singer doesn’t, not primarily, anyway, and would have good reason not to welcome it. They just do their stuff. But I suppose they do their stuff at least partly because they’ve been fans too, and know what it’s like.

How did this come about? In the run-up to the 30th I thought I would trace the line, one album at a time.

Dry was Polly Harvey’s first album, released in 1992 when PJ Harvey was a band as well as an individual: it takes her blues heritage and accelerates it with the aggressive energy of post-punk, marinating both in the unaccountable sense of sardonic rage the songwriter seemed to feel, who knows where from. But I wasn’t much into buying albums at that time, and didn’t pick up on Dry as such until much later.

Instead it was early that year that I heard the band’s second single, ‘Sheela-na-Gig’, via that great and lamented repository of the alternative, John Peel’s Radio 1 show. Not being au fait with the possibilities of multi-track recording, I assumed PJ Harvey were a girl group, because of the cross-cutting vocals. I also assumed, as many people did, that the lead singer, at least, was American. (years later she would instruct herself ‘English accent, dammit!’).

There were quite a lot of angry young women singers about in the early 90s, but ‘Sheela-na-Gig’ was something different. This was anger and erudition: I knew what sheela-na-gigs were, after misspending my teenage years stuck in my room reading about folklore and other arcana, but I hadn’t expected to hear them being referenced on Radio 1 (it would have been odd, actually, for an American to have picked up on the motif, in that far-off pre-internet age when you had to discover relevant books to find things out). It was also anger and humour, and anger and conflict: the narrator of the song both despises and yearns for male approval. This was nothing obvious, nothing straightforward; it acknowledged ambiguity and strife. It was really rather worth paying attention to. And so I filed PJ Harvey away in my mind for future reference. 


  1. Thanks again - this time you've opened a door to the work of an artist I know nothing much of, in any useful sense. The comments about connection with someone one doesn't know at all resonate for me.
    You may know there is a folk-ish band called Sheela-na-gig, fun live though possibly not enormously rewarding on disc (mp3, waxed cyclinder, whatever...)

  2. Oh, there is a lot more of this yet to come!

  3. I do envy you a slight bit, for being there from the start. I couldn't have done that of course, as I hadn't even been born yet when Dry came out, but I do blame myself a little for not giving PJ a listen earlier than I did; I had been hearing her name for years after all.
    You do a quite a good job of explaining why you find Polly so compelling. Yes there are other artists I love and enjoy, but Polly just eclipses everyone, to the extent that the work of other artists gets compared to her own; yes I know that is terribly unfair and slightly stupid, but there it is: it's not even a conscious thing. It's just that every aspect of her art is so unified, down to the outfits she wears. And she has, or at least her work has, in these few years, become an indispensable part of how I go about my own life, on a daily basis.
    Anyway, it's nice to gush about Polly without feeling like a maniac; easier to do with someone who knows exactly what I'm talking about, possibly even better.

  4. You're welcome! It wasn't *quite* the start: I don't remember hearing 'Dress', as it was 'Sheela na Gig' that grabbed my attention. And I didn't even see her perform until 2011. But *almost* the start!

    You can see how my sense of having grown along with her has affected the way I think about her. Part of why I love her, now, is the awareness of how she's moved from what she was at 21 to what she is at 47: that sense of gradually opening out of an intense but very narrow experience to something universal and grand. I'm so - and this is a strange thing to say - *proud* of her.

    Then there are the other aspects of who she is that captivate everyone else, too. She gives an impression of combined strength and fragility which is terribly beguiling, and I'm sure she's absolutely conscious of the effect that skinny frame, knobbly knees and big boots produce together. And there's also her refusal to give away very much, which gives everyone the chance to imagine the Polly they want. Of course I want to believe *I* really understand her, but then so does everyone else and I am probably just as wrong!