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Vinyl Sessions: PJ Harvey – To Bring You My Love

February 11, 2024

Tickets £3
Doors open 12pm, session starts at 12.30pm
This show is for a seated audience
The bar will be open throughout

Authenticity. Amid the top 40 rundown of overrated qualities in modern pop, it’s right up there. When did we suddenly decide that autobiographical lyrics, often set to organic, ‘real’ instrumentation was what all good recording artists should aspire to?

At its worst, this kind of mindset eventually leads down a path that effectively walls artists off from writing about any subjects, sensations or activities they haven’t directly experienced themselves, while treating with suspicion any musical backdrop that deviates from a horridly bland, ersatz ‘real music’ played properly and professionally with none of your weird stuff. Never mind the fact that said ‘real music’ would most likely have been recorded in a none-more-artificial studio space, through an array of various effects boxes to improve the sound, onto a computer, and with all manner of pitch correction applied to the vocals.

(Yes, yes, we’ll get to PJ Harvey eventually. Bear with me.)

Demanding a dogged adherence to authenticity from our musical heroes does a disservice to everyone. It robs listeners of the unpredictable glee that can be had from grappling with mischievous lyrical conceits, thrilling genre experimentation and encountering sounds you’ve never heard before.

Even worse, it can have the effect of conflating an artist’s work with their actual lived life. If you can reliably untangle the meanings behind an artist’s lyrics by perusing the tabloid press – ‘Oh, so she’s writing about him. Ooh, so that’s why they split up…’ I’d maintain that something, somewhere, has gone very, very wrong.

Bring on the facades, I say. If an artist wants to experiment with different voices and identities, let them. If they want to adopt the methodology of fiction writers when penning their lyrics, we should embrace that. I know I’d far rather hear fantastical words that speak to profound truths – accidentally or otherwise – than prurient details of an artist’s actual private life, because that’s surely their business, not ours. We’re here for the art… aren’t we?

And that’s why PJ Harvey is so amazing.

By 1994, Polly Jean Harvey (collectively known with her backing band as ‘PJ Harvey’) had already made considerable waves in alternative music circles. Her stock in trade at the time was an aggressive take on stripped back blues-rock that was heavily indebted to the likes of early Captain Beefheart, but twisted into unusual, unfamiliar shapes. It was the sound of jittery power chords, walloping drums and scuzzy bass accompanying what, at least on initial inspection, seemed like lyrics borne of a kind of brutal feminism.

Between her confrontational debut album Dry and even more abrasive follow-up Rid of Me there were first-person confessionals detailing vengeful fantasies against wayward male lovers, mocking takedowns of traditional masculinity and angry diatribes against constrictive dresses – but there was a hell of a lot more going on besides that. ‘Me-Jane’ was a surreally funny deconstruction of the deeply problematic sexual politics at play in Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Tarzan stories, while the startling imagery, biblical allusions, pop culture references and religious guilt that suffuses the lyrics of fan favourite track ‘Sheela-Na-Gig’ could easily warrant a lengthy essay on its own. In short, she knew what she was doing.

And then 1995’s To Bring You My Love marked a sharp departure. The first indication was the way Harvey presented herself to the world. The austere album covers and monochrome promo videos that had hitherto constituted the PJ Harvey aesthetic were jettisoned in favour of artwork with rich hues that portrayed Harvey immersed in water, in a pose that could be showing her in a state of sleep or deep bliss – or potentially drowning, or indeed dead.

The shot in question was a still for the promo video accompanying the album’s lead-off single ‘Down by the Water’ – a slinky, coiled snake of a song that culminated in a sinister nursery rhyme refrain obliquely referencing infanticide.

The song and its arresting visuals – including a vampish PJ Harvey wearing a deep red cocktail dress, alternately singing in front of rippling green satin and floating in what seems like a river suspended in an endless void – served notice that this album was to be a very different proposition to what had gone before.

The songs on To Bring You My Love were still ostensibly rooted in a traditional drums-bass-guitars set up, and that raw blues sound still served as the foundation – but everything around it seemed bigger and more lavish, but also even more wired, tense and somehow a bit … off.

One track would see a growling riff circle endlessly beneath a dead-eyed, mantra-like vocal line. Immediately after, the listener would be thrown into the stately strings of a lush-sounding folk song that sounded like it could have been handed down through multiple generations of American settlers. But then the vocals kick in, and they’re so insistent, so pleading, so desperate to be heard that the experience of listening to them becomes almost stifling.

And then, with an insouciant ‘Mm-hm…’ PJ Harvey, singer and band, would suddenly hit you with an almighty thunderclap of guitar riffage and cavernous percussion that sounded like the sky splitting apart. Yeah, they can do stadium rock now. Because why not?

To Bring You My Love marked an emphatic point in PJ Harvey’s career. Each album thereafter would have its own clearly delineated aesthetic and sonic identity, typically in marked contrast to what had immediately gone before.

In time, we would get to meet ‘Electronic desolation PJ’, ‘Urban sass AOR PJ’, ‘I’m having the mother of all sulks PJ’, ‘Miss Havisham with an autoharp PJ,’ ‘Post-colonialist historian PJ’ and ‘War reporter PJ’ – but that playing with identity, with character, with dressing up and using stories to interrogate the most profound parts of what it is to be human – that all starts here. And it sounds wonderful.

The album will be presented by Callum Fauser

The album playback will be followed by a Q&A session

After a short break, we’ll follow the album with our usual ‘Dead Wax’ session. Bring along a 7” of your choice and hear it played through the Arts Centre PA. This can be anything you like, for any reason – the more ‘out there’ the better.


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Sun, February 11
2:00 pm - 5:00 pm


Colchester Arts Centre
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Colchester Arts Centre