Days Between Stations: Screams from the Basement (08/93?)

It’s hard to imagine how anyone hearing PJ Harvey’s Rid of Me (Island) might take it lightly. The second album from guitarist, singer, and writer Polly Harvey, drummer Robert Ellis, and bassist Stephen Vaugh­an—who came together in a rural town in southern England called Yeovil—is love-or-hate stuff, though not nec­essarily because listeners are going to be divided into opposing camps. Peo­ple may find that the music divides them within themselves. One moment you’re sucked in by eruptions of pas­sion and heedless momentum; then the same qualities come off as a gross irritation, a nagging, in-your-face screed of attitude and pose.Throughout, Rid of Me gives off a sulphurous smell of dangerous secrets being told—secrets about love, sex, submission, identity and self­hood seized, denied, constructed, smashed. There’s a feeling here of subterranean emotional conspiracy. Listening, I thought again and again of a photo I dimly remembered from an old punk fanzine. I finally dug it out of a pile of stuff I’d never been able to justify throwing out: LowLife #14, from Atlanta, the special “Salute to Censorship” issue, published in 1988 or ’89. The picture shows a band called Medicine Suite: two women and a man are performing on Halloween. “There was so much art and so many bands,” says the man, single-named Benjamin, “but everyone sat there and watched Meg and Laurie and me be obscene and gross and disgusting, just like we were in our own home. It was the best thing ever, and, of course, that was where we became the criminals of the scene.” In the grimy, too-dark photo, a small woman stripped to the waist holds a knife toward another woman, naked, her head down, her body splattered and wrapped in thin cords. Behind her the man, wearing panties and a blouse, holds her hair, his face clenched. There’s no violence in the picture; it’s a game—you just can’t guess what the rules are, or how you win or lose. The people in the picture are having fun; looking at it, you may not be. “The main thing,” says Benjamin, “is that it is amazing such nothingness could get so much attention.”

You can’t really read this picture; you can’t read PJ Harvey’s music any more clearly. The dynamics of their music promise everything. The from-a-whisper-to-a-scream arrangements on a number of the tunes—including the title song, the first cut—is old stuff, but perhaps with the help of producer Steve Albini the trick is played with such intensity the shift sounds new every time. The music relies a lot on chanting, on repetition, as if in an attempt to get past words to the fears and lusts they merely signify, to get to the desires words hide more than re­veal—but here the edge dulls, and too often you hear only a straining for effect. What’s more alive in the music is what you might glimpse in the picture of Medicine Suite: the urge of secrets to go public.The photo of Medicine Suite may have been taken when the band was onstage, but the set­ting feels more like a basement with the door locked. The power in Rid of Me is in that same basement confinement, the scary, desperate claustrophobia of the sound. Some songs—“50 Ft. Quee­nie,” “Man-Size”—seem meant to suck the air right out of the room; heard in the right (or wrong) mood, they can very nearly suck it out of yours. The scratchy, keening cry at the end of “Rid of Me” (“Lick my legs/I’m on fire”—it’s Robert Ellis singing, but there’s no gender in his voice, no reason to think it isn’t Polly Harvey) is like the plea of a captive trying to crawl under the door. At its best the music is so extreme—not in its form, but in its force, in its demands—that perhaps it’s simply easier to think of the band locked in a room instead of setting up in the public square. “Douse hair with gas-o-line,” Har­vey says to seal the two versions of “Man-Size” on Rid of Me (the first, “Man-Size Sextet,” with Harvey on cello and viola). As the line echoes back and forth across the album, the suggestion is that what’s happening in the public square is not a band setting up but a witch being burned.Still, there’s an ultimate vagueness in Rid of Me—a blank that can’t be explained away simply by noting that the record features too much hectoring without enough melody. “I’d like to put it all across in music and not have any words at all,” Polly Har­vey recently told Katherine Dieckmann in Musician, but words are the problem, and the Rid of Me version of Bob Dylan’s “Highway 61 Revisited” shows how. Here, in a cover of a tune a good five years older than the twenty-three-year-old Harvey, the music instantly achieves a kind of life it displays nowhere else. It’s one of Dylan’s most sardonic, perfectly written (or perfectly tossed-off) numbers: as he sings or as Harvey does, “Poor Howard,” “Georgia Sam,” “Louie the King,” “Mack the Finger,” “the fifth daughter on the twelfth night,” and everyone else in the song appear as real people with real motives—helpless, malevolent, dangerous, pathetic, in real trouble. There are no characters as real anywhere else on Rid of Me. Save for the insistently self-creating persona of “PJ Harvey”—which is not a character, exactly—there’s no one you can talk to, and in a way no one who’s talking to you. The others to whom so many of the songs are addressed—or aimed—are just that: others, reflections of the singer, less lovers or enemies than specters.

So Rid of Me never does get out of its basement. It has its pull, though; you can’t ignore it. And sooner or later Polly Harvey will go public. That event won’t divide people within themselves. Some will rush forward. Others may turn and run.

Interview, August 1993 (Date TBD)

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