The third Island LP from Polly Jean and her machine remains her singular blues punk masterpiece
Plenty of performers, particularly women, aren’t really in it to be compared to animals or historical figures or whatever full-pedestal metaphor your sweaty male crits got locked and loaded in the chamber.
But Polly Jean Harvey doesn’t give a fuck. Compare her to Jane from Tarzan. Or to 19th century fertility carvings. Or a mythical banshee rhinoceros who will gore you with her falsetto. She can take it. It’s not that she doesn’t care. She knows of what she invites. “Robert DeNiro sit on my face” is not something a fragile genius mumbles outside of her boudoir.
So when we talk about the sheer primacy of To Bring You My Love, Harvey’s Pazz-and-Jop-winning 1995 masterpiece, we sweaty male crits don’t have to worry so much about going beyond the pale. You know that scene at the end of Munich with Eric Bana having sex superimposed over the assassination of Israeli athletes? It’s like that except the opposite of fucking horrible.
The opening title song is probably the second-best vocal performance of the 1990s (after Kurt Cobain’s sacrosanct unplugged Leadbelly, of course). Her natural body power would be exorcism enough even without Flood — stereophonic lifegiver of U2 and Nine Inch Nails — deep-frying it in electric swamp acid. Distortion curls over her ascending mantra vocal like smoke on a cast iron; a first-person offering of devotion has never sounded so evil. When she belches “big black monsoon!” each time the refrain of the industrial-pounding “Meet Ze Monsta” comes around, you expect her to spit out her lover’s bones.
But what makes the improbably hi-fi follow-up to her Albini-produced, scratch-racket masterpiece Rid of Me almost as great is that it’s almost as defined by its silences. Just as “Meet Ze Monsta” squeals short, in comes the whispered proto-dubstep bass of “Working for the Man” or the steam-room aside “I Think I’m a Mother,” tunes that occasionally make you think the record’s no longer even playing. The classic “Down by the Water” buzzes with all kinds of aural cicadas and clockwork percussion, a vertical call-response blues that builds an elaborate house of cards only to be taken down one at a time with no mess as she whispers the song back to sleep.
Of course, it’s also louder than fuck. “Long Snake Moan” begins in its middle, a gut-punch with no subtlety that starts boiling, compressed, and ends with no tension lost. The astonishing “C’Mon Billy” and “Send His Love to Me” are the loudest things on the record, yet also the sparsest, all rough-strummed acoustic and clenched diaphragm. To Bring You My Love is completely unafraid to both peak and valley, its dynamics constricting and dilating like few records before or since. It dares to ask an admittedly hugely privileged question but a compelling one nonetheless: What if the devil-and-brimstone stakes of vintage blues recordings were rendered with cinematic budgets? It’s so deliriously desecrating that the devil would want a peek, of course. To Bring You My Love is the sound of male rock critics sacrificing ourselves on the altar of a Hendrixian voodoo genius self-caricaturing a fear-mongering woman in the name of (gasp) love. We were anything but rid of her, and good.