Everyone’s talking about the February release of PJ Harvey’s album, Let England Shake. But before it arrives, let’s wander back to the beginning of her music (and my late teens) to see how it started.
In the introduction to 33 1/3’s Rid of Me, author Kate Schatz explains her PJ Harvey-inspired novella as a result of revisiting the album. As she says in the book, “This story is not about the album, it’s because of the album.” She has used it as a point of inspiration, not interpretation. What follows is a strange, disjointed story that reads half-fairytale, half-chick lit. But its tone is true to the sound of the songs that inspired it.
Like the author, I, spent my angsty teenage years listening to the moans, groans and gnashing guitars of PJ Harvey—awed by her words and a voice that combined shrill insanity with masculine surety.
When she made the scene in 1992 with Dry, PJ Harvey was not like any female musician I’d seen. Amid the femme confessional poetesses (e.g., Tori Amos) and the militant grungettes (a la Courtney Love), Harvey offered something not yet categorized. Her lyrics and guitar were raw, her vocals howling, her style oscillating between androgyny and hyper-sexuality. But there was something vulnerable and almost restrained about it all—this tiny woman with the wild hair who seemed so composed even as she sang into madness. My own Patti Smith, punked out and revved up on a sound I hadn’t heard. I was a senior in high school, and I took my music and myself very seriously.
When I first heard her on Rid of Me, the follow-up to her debut, it blew my mind. She’s talking about being man-sized and tying people up and strange gender politics without being ham-fisted about it. She’s telling someone to lick her legs, and she’s talking about being horny in a way that’s actually interesting! I like this girl, I thought. And Rid of Me is still one of my all-time favorite albums.
She showed girls my age that you could be vulnerable and emotional, and still not take any shit. Just look at her playing guitar—that woman is not taking any shit.
My own Patti Smith, punked out and revved up on a sound I hadn’t heard.
This is very similar to the female characters in Schatz’s story, Mary and Kathleen. Though they’re imprisoned in their lives (both involving a domineering male), they manage to escape their homes (though not their demons). Sweet, haunted, insane, murderous, the two embody the album. They see a world that’s shadowy and diabolical, full of omens—a world in which they’re told to avoid the dark woods, but flee there.The interesting thing is that the narrative is almost beside the point for me—something I’m sure the author didn’t intend—because I was so intrigued by finding how all the references fit, finding traces of songs in the story, trying to understand how the women personify the many moods of Harvey on the album. Schatz leaves tantalizing lyrical breadcrumbs throughout the book, both with direct quotes from songs and tableaus pulled from their narratives.
I also returned to the album and listened to it, more than 15 years later, with different ears. Safely out of the woods of teenage-hood, most things no longer seem like the end of the world to me. But even though my emotions aren’t as overwrought, all the howls, the imagery of dominance and submission, the themes of obsession and lust, don’t seem silly or contrived. The melodies still sound unique and strong to me. The words still spare and lovely.
Mary and Kathleen find one another and begin an obsessive love affair that’s part kidnapping, part escape. They tie each other up, lick legs, and the like. But their hallucinations and anxiety take any romance out of the courtship, making everything seem like a bad dream. Like in Rid of Me, we learn that even creatures who lurk in the dark can fear darkness. Wow, I’m feeling 16 again!
Seriously though, the story can stand on its own. But knowing the album, and remembering the emotional space that it created, helps make it richer, stranger and more fun to read. A perfect lead to the tweaked-out lesbian ballerinas in Black Swan, which I just happen to be seeing tonight.
About This Series: 33 1/3 is a series for serious music nerds, edited by David Barker and published by Continuum Books. Each book features one author focusing on one album, using any form they choose. The result is essays, short stories, memoirs, and critiques on a wide range of genres. For more, check out www.33third.blogspot.com.