The other day, while taking my daughter to day camp, I was playing P.J. Harvey’s To Bring You My Love on the car stereo. Released in 1995 during my last year in high school, this album is one that I consistently return to, perhaps my favourite of Harvey’s discography, and unlike so many other albums of that period of my life I feel that it never dates. The ominous riff of the opening and title track, the heretic lyrics that spill across every song, the sinister anger that underlies the album, the story songs about murder and isolation… It’s hard to imagine anyone who cares about music would not like Harvey after hearing this series of tracks.
P.J. Harvey holds a special place in my heart. In grades eleven and twelve I spent a lot of time hanging out at a friend’s apartment (an emancipated minor whose home sadly became a juvie drug-dealing den) listening to Rid of Me over and over while smoking pot and watching Cronenberg films. To Bring You My Love was part of the constant soundtrack of grade 13 (which used to exist in Ontario) and my first year in university. Is This Desire was released in my second year in university and was instrumental in impressing the woman who would eventually become my wife. The story goes like this… I had just bought Is This Desire and dubbed it unto a cassette I could play in my parent’s van. After a late night at a hipster coffee shop I drove a woman I barely knew home. She asked me if I was playing the new P.J. Harvey on the van stereo and, without realizing that Harvey was her favourite musician, I turned it up. Years later we would end up dating but she still remembers this event as the moment that she was attracted to me. Yeah, that’s right, P.J. Harvey was instrumental in determining the course of my life.
But still, after so many albums that have all been brilliant, it is to To Bring You My Love that I keep returning. For those who haven’t listened to it yet the best way to describe its assembled songs and ethos is to think of it as a soundtrack to the works of Flannery O’Connor. And if you are unfamiliar with O’Connor then think of the following: a bunch of sinister songs that are about serial killers, mothers murdering their children, vulnerable women who have been demonized, abandoned, or taken advantage of by itinerant preachers. Come on, Billy: meet the monster.
This album is so essential to my development as a music lover that I am always shocked when someone who claims to care about music is unfamiliar with its existence. It’s a little like discovering a lover of “classical” music is unfamiliar with Beethoven.
To Bring You My Love is the album that first demonstrated Harvey’s breadth as a musician. Before 1995 her albums were paradigm examples of angry post-punk – brilliant examples but only several steps sideways from a garage band. Even then she was influential: Kurt Cobain cited Dry and Rid of Me as influences to the direction Nirvana was taking post-Nevermind. (And recently, probably because of this, Harvey was asked to front Nirvana, filling in for Cobain, for a reunion tour. She declined.) Before To Bring You My Love her work was already influential, and if she had ended her career as only a visceral post-punk musician, or even continued in the same vein, she would still be important. But To Bring You My Love was a transitionary album: the three piece garage band was discarded, Harvey began to incorporate different instruments into the arrangements of songs representing different genres. The distance between Long Snake Moan and Down By The Water is massive in terms of musical genre, but this gap is bridged by the overall theme of the album: an O’Connor southern gothic theme.
Since this album Harvey has produced albums that are not only thematically unified but have been designed to stretch her boundaries as a musician. White Chalk, for example, structured every song around a broken-down upright piano. Let England Shake was not only structured around Harvey’s desire to learn the autoharp but was thematically unified around the working class history of World War One. And, in my opinion, it was To Bring You My Love that signified this transition to a musician that transcended genre categories, an album that left the childhood of post-punk garage anger to embrace a musician adulthood that would be consistently surprising.
Although To Bring You My Love is not Harvey’s greatest album, my love for it is driven by both my nostalgia and my belief that it is her most emblematic: it signalled her decision to become a serious musician more interested in composition than being confined within a particular genre. I remember, for example, being disappointed by her Stories From The City Stories From the Sea because I felt it did not live up to the strength of her previous Is This Desire (the title track of which, I should mention, was the “slow dance” selection for my wedding). And yet, in retrospect, I have come to appreciate the choices she made on that album, her unwillingness to abide by what was expected: the song This Mess We’re In is sung primarily by Thom Yorke, demonstrating that she was more concerned with making a song than performing it – her skill as a composer necessitated, in this one song, her desire to have another voice other than her own take on the lion’s share of the performance.
Hence, To Bring You My Love represented Harvey’s shift into the category of song composer over and above song performer. Similar patterns can be observed amongst her male contemporaries, such as Nick Cave who she briefly dated. But while Cave continues to receive multiple accolades for his skills in composition and production, Harvey still dances on the margins. And I listen to the emergence of this margin dancing whenever I replay To Bring You My Love – from its opening low register guitar riffs to its concluding haunting organ chords.