Religion is one of the many things PJ Harvey has never really talked about. The closest she got was in an interview for The Guardian in October 2000, in which Lindsay Baker spent most of her time trying to prove PJH was no longer the ‘cauldron-stirring lady of darkness’ of previous years. In fact the article contained such gems of non-committal Harveyism as, in answer to the question whether she might have a family one day, ‘I tend to think that I’ll take whatever comes my way, that whatever comes my way will happen or won’t happen, and that’s the way it’ll be’. You wonder it was worth the ink to print.
The segment touching on matters of belief was similar. Ms Baker noticed that Harvey was wearing a crucifix and, in the course of discussing her recent role as Mary Magdalen/Magdalena in Hal Hartley’s film The Book of Life, asked whether she had a faith. ‘I don’t know if I could answer that really yet’, mused our heroine helpfully, ‘I have my own beliefs, which I probably won’t talk about. It’s a very important part of my interest, and I’m aware of religion and its impact on everyone and everything.’ Well, hold the front page. Ms Baker speculated that this interest had developed from Harvey’s involvement with the movie and its apocalyptic themes, which was clearly untrue and a deliberate evasion on Harvey’s part if she was the one that suggested it. There have been repeated hints over the years that the singer knows more about Christian culture than she lets on. Though they have mostly been corrected of late, if you looked up the lyrics of one song from 1993, ‘Primed and Ticking’ (there isn’t an official set available), you used to find all sorts of incomprehensible interpretations of a particular line, which makes perfect sense once you realise the words are ‘widely as his mercy flows’, lifted from the hymn ‘Praise my soul the King of Heaven’. Another early, unrecorded, song in PJH’s registered lists is titled ‘Time and Times and Half a Time’ – which you can not only pinpoint as a quotation of Daniel 12.7, but also as coming from the New International Version of the Bible, as no other translation puts it that way. This degree of Scriptural familiarity is impressive for a layperson whose only experience of church life, she says, was being taken to St Mary’s Corscombe once a year to sing Christmas carols. After the interview, she stopped wearing the crucifix.
This is just a preamble to discussing one particular song from Hope Six. ‘River Anacostia’ derives from the slightest of the poems published in The Hollow of the Hand – more a fragment than a poem, really:
A tiny red sun
Like a tail light
Down the overpass
That’s it – the whole thing. Out of that, it seems, Harvey spins the most subtle, suggestive track on the album. However, one of Seamus Murphy’s photographs shows her, sat by the river Anacostia which runs through Washington DC, surveying it with an appraising eye and writing, and presumably there were things that went into that notebook then which later emerged in the song. She notes, perhaps, not just her immediate surroundings, but the naval works which lie upstream and which would also feature, negatively, in the lyric. Further, at the same time as Harvey was making her visit to Washington, in April 2013, a teacher and an artist, Alysia Scofield and Marla McLean, were staging an art presentation at the State University of New York at Potsdam called ‘Wade In the Water: The River Anacostia Project, a creative transdisciplinary journey’. How this came to Harvey’s attention we do not know, as we do not know so much else, but its title is too much of a coincidence.
So, to the initial observation of water, reeds, and pollution, Harvey adds the old slave spiritual ‘Wade in the Water’. ‘Wade in the water, God’s gonna trouble the water’ runs the lyric: an allusion to chapter 5 of the Gospel of St John, describing the Pool of Bethesda in Jerusalem whose waters were periodically disturbed by angels, and ‘the first one into the waters after such a disturbance would be cured’. In the story, Jesus intervenes to heal an invalid who can’t make it to the water by himself. ‘Wade in the water’ is a religious song, to be sure, and conveys God’s intention to heal: but God acts to heal more than individuals. Societies can be sick, too, and that makes the lyric, incorporating references to the enslaved Israelites being liberated from Egypt, political as well. In fact, the very promise that God will trouble the waters has a radical edge to it: for the world to be healed by divine action, there will have to be disturbance. Some who now sit in comfort will have to be upset. Harvey imports all those resonances from the old song into her own, and adds to them, though typically the music critics, being generally religiously illiterate, saw its presence as adding nothing more than local colour (one of the more reductive analyses summarised 'River Anacostia' as an 'anti-pollution song').
As Harvey looked across the river, she seems to have thought of other Biblical echoes of waters and divine presence. She remembers Jesus on the Lake of Galilee, and so this is what she writes into her song:
O my Anacostia
Do not sigh, do not weep.
Beneath the overpass,
Your Saviour’s waiting patiently.
Walking on the water,
Flowing with the poisons
From the naval yard –
He’s talking to the broken reeds –
Saying, ‘What will become of us?
What will become of us?’
Small red sun makes way for night
Trails away like a tail-light –
Is that Jesus on the water,
Talking to the fallen trees?
Saying, ‘What will become of us?
What will become of us?’
‘Broken reeds’ is itself another scriptural allusion, to the prophetic utterance about the Messiah to come in Isaiah 42: ‘a bruised reed he will not break’. If these reeds are broken, it’s not Jesus who broke them. That’s been done by someone else.
This, then, becomes an incarnational lyric. Not only does Jesus appear walking on the filthy sluice of the modern river, as he appears in Cookham High Street in Stanley Spencer’s paintings, but he identifies himself entirely with the people of Anacostia, the broken reeds and fallen trees: what will become of us, says the Saviour. He’s as broken as they are. He is the crucified one. But his frailty, his crucifixion, is not the last word. In the recording, up from the depths of the mix comes the slave song, insisting that God will trouble the waters, that there will be healing, there will be a reckoning, an insistence taken up by the chorus of the band members, who finish the track a capella as the instruments fall silent.
This is complex enough – typically Harveyan, it says plenty without saying it explicitly, and with wondrous economy. But there’s a further layer. You might have thought that Harvey’s jaw-droppingly bold address of the river – ‘O my Anacostia’ – identifies her fully with what follows. Not quite: not even I can quite assert that the Saviour of Anacostia is hers as well. Not only is there ambiguity in the lyric – remember it asks 'is that Jesus on the water’, rather than asserting that it definitely is – but perhaps even this, too, is her customary ventriloquy, speaking in the imagined voice of someone else? Anacostia, like much of the States, is a religious place, after all. All you can assert with surety is that her imagination works in the way a particularly deep-thinking Christian’s might.
As the male voices of Harvey’s band recount the promise of ‘Wade in the Water’, she’s there too, singing the same tone, but not echoing them. Instead, beneath them, she wails, high and narrow, over and over again the words she puts into the mouth of Jesus: ‘what will become, what will become of us?’ Hope, perhaps a specifically religious hope, is tenderly treated here, certainly, unlike the bitter cry at the end of ‘The Community of Hope’, ‘they’re gonna built a Walmart here’ (is that all you’ve got to hope for?), but it’s as though she can’t allow it to have an unequivocal last word: there has to be some hesitancy, some doubt. As always, PJ Harvey steps away from definitive statements, leaving us to work out ourselves what we think.