PJ HARVEY, The Academy, New York
Melody Maker, July 10th 1993
by Simon Reynolds
From grunge's 'castration blues' to the glutinous gloom of Come/Red House Painters/Mazzy Star to tonight's support band Gallon Drunk (with their cliche-encrusted homage to Nick Cave's homage to primal blues), everyone in '93 wants to cut back to the raw bones of a lost authenticity. But perhaps only a woman could bring a new dimension to something as hidebound as bluesy catharsis: Polly
For a long while, it was precisely her traditionalism that put me off: after Throwing Muses, Dry seemed retrogressive. Eventually, I appreciated it for having the same relation to the 'angry women' bands that The Pretenders bore to punk, ie. a more musicianly format for the same ferocity. Now that's she's gone right back to rock's roots (listening to Muddy Waters, covering Willie
Dixon's "Wang Dang Doodle"), Harvey's mismatch of radical content and trad form is even more disconcerting and provocative.
For PJ Harvey are now playing blues rock: they sound like nothing so much as Led Zeppelin. Rob Ellis' drums rampage as thunderously as John Bonham; Polly's singing sometimes recalls Robert Plant at his most histrionic. "50 Ft Queenie" churns around a bassline that's a dead ringer for Black Sabbath's "Supernaut", while
Harvey's alter-ego Queenie is a female equivalent to the titanic, sky-scraping Supernaut, or the marauding man-monster that stomps through Hendrix' "Voodoo Chile". Taking on the self-aggrandising, tyrannical swagger of heavy rock, Polly Harvey is the incarnation of that Freudian nightmare figure, the phallic woman. But the crucial point is that nobody has the phallus, least of all men. The "phallus" isn't a dangle of gristle between the legs, but an imaginary, unattainable state of omni-POTENT wholeness and invulnerability. From heavy metal to gangsta rap, men loudly (pro)claim sole possession of it, but PJ, the ultimate tomboy, doesn't see why she shouldn't usurp that "birthright" (as "Man-Size"
mockingly puts it) for herself.
Much of the music PJ Harvey play tonight is cock-rock, no two ways about it. But the finest moment, blasting off the set as it does the album, is "Rid Of Me", which replaces rock's cock with a vagina dentata. It's the same scenario as Fatal Attraction, where a woman turns her 'lack' into a voracious threat. With its gutteral vocals and lunging Pixies dynamics, "Rid Of Me" embodies love as
close combat. When the riff starts to slam and Ellis shrieks the backing chant "lick my legs" in that supremely humiliating falsetto, the audience squeals and gasps in a hysteria that dwarfs what Suede incited here recently. As the song's blind thrust escalates, mercilessly bludgeoning the line "doncha-wish-ya'd-nevva-met-her" into your brain, you almost black out.
On songs like "Rid Of Me" and "Yuri G", the way Polly smites and gashes her fretboard never lets you forget that a flesh-and-blood human is struggling viscerally with an instrument, that this noise comes from her body. Which is a throwback (radical music today, from sampladelic dance to post-MBV, sounds disembodied, breaks the connection between physical gesture and sonic effect), but a
thrilling throwback. "Dress" beats you black and blue, "Sheela-Na-Gig" goes ballistic, "Oh Stella" rotorvates like the treadmill-groove of Zep's "Four Sticks'. Other songs have off-kilter dynamics that uncannily recall prog-blues units like Budgie or The Groundhogs. Much of the time, Polly seems to be singing from the same place--love's killing floor--as the bluesmen, black and white.
Except that for once it's the man who's the devil-in-disguise, the black dog, the caster of malign spells.
Clearly, PJ has a deeply ambivalent relationship to male energy. It excites her as much as digusts her. PJ Harvey incite a ton of it tonight. No grrl-only zone in front of the stage for PJ, quite the opposite: it's jam-packed with jostling brawn and slamming skins. There's some savage irony in the fact that tiny, delicate PJ
would get pulped if she tried to attend her own gig. With her Albini link-up and tonight's, erm, 'balls-out' performance, Polly clearly wants to succeed on the most masculinist terms, even as songs like "Me Jane" parody/deconstruct machismo. It makes you wonder if the moshers get the irony of "Man-Size", with its "get
girl out of my head" line?
Too often tonight, PJ Harvey cross the thin line between heavy and heavy-handed, impressive and oppressive. New songs like "My Naked Cousin" and the stiff funk-rocker "Primed and Ticking" seem forced, don't groove. The show suffers from a certain coldness, a lack of intimacy or real abandon. Maybe somebody should tell PJ that for all its apparent privileges, masculinity isn't an enviable state
of being. And then, after all the bombastic, ear-bleeding overkill, Polly demurely whispers 'thankyou', closer to a church mouse than a monster of rock. What a strange, fascinating bundle of contradictions she is.