Granted, it might have been that stupefyingly ugly outfit she’d wear on this tour that was like attempting to be Britain’s answer to American whoredom. For whatever reason, anyway, after receiving what was basically unanimous critical adoration upon its release, PJ Harvey’s third album, 1995’s To Bring You My Love, has been discursively lost in relative obscurity, with debut Dry and sophomore stab Rid of Me always garnering the mentions. Truth be told, I do remember Ryan Schreiber of Pitchfork dissing the album on their now-deleted Is This Desire? review, again possibly out of scorn for that outfit she wore and bitterness of his inability to take it off her.
Oops, I didn’t know we couldn’t talk about sex. What was I thinking? Well then I better not talk about this album and its neanderthal plea “Bring me / Lover” or about Harvey in general, because, like her ’90s lo-fi running mate Liz Phair, Harvey is firmly and juicily not one to shy away from talk about her life in the bedroom.
As with Phair, perhaps, her lyrics often seemed funneled into her head as the way of some expressionist, hedonistic stupor of some sort, whether from the influence of drugs or just plain frustration at the pervasive confinement of sexual sociology as it’s variantly transmitted from women. Right from the start on To Bring You My Love, Harvey is obstinately, robustly he**-bent on miffing the traditionalists in society who would be uncomfortable before a woman’s carnal desires. So in adamantly voicing her sexuality (which by and large seems solely heterosexual throughout this project, not that it should necessarily matter), Harvey figures she’ll go all out on staunch, minimalist, rock-strutting opening title track, proclaiming that she’s “lain with the devil” and “forsaken heaven / To bring you my love”.
I remember listening to this album when I was in my 20’s and, having already taken in that expressly phallic “50 ft. Queenie” escapade and the homicidal mania of “Legs,” not necessarily being SHOCKED that Harvey had maintained her position as the edgiest sexpot in women’s rock, but still intimidated enough to soak into a good listen of the album (which yes I’m pretty sure I found in a bargain bin of some sort). Rolling Stone’s review of To Bring You My Love establishes painstaking emphasis on the record’s blues influence (somehow failing to reference Robert Johnson and the crossroads, meanwhile), but to reduce it to blues retroism, and to potentiate discussion of her covers of yore like “Highway 61 Revisited” and “Wang Dang Doodle,” is to cripple a whole multipronged stylistic head this beast takes at its definitive innards. This plurality within the rock playbook, as it stands, could be defined roughly as the kind of tense, synth-heavy classic rock epitomized by fellow Briton David Essex and his zeitgeist-evading hit “Rock on,” and… er… grunge. No idea how that word would have eluded the Rolling Stone in 1995, of all years.
In tandem, basically, with “Long Snake Moan,” which truly could be a Soundgarden song (and a pretty darn good one, at that), and “Meet Ze Monsta,” which reminds me a little bit in texture of a more structurally conventional Melvins tune, To Bring You My Love is built on two main things, each of which is the artist’s ingenuous, cleverly juxtaposed progeny all her own: tension and simplicity. These are songs, in other words, that stick in your head – for all their originality, strangeness and anatomical depth, they’re curt and direct enough to be believably the products of visceral artistic vision, and not a sort of willful pasting of arbitrary mass, the way alt-rock also-rans like Our Lady Peace and the Toadies sometimes seem.
But every song on To Bring You My Love is good and they’re anything but a reductive Delta Blues souvenir shop, “Working for the Man” taking on the lyrical theme of prostitution but easing up on the contrived catharsis, preferring a heady bassline, uniquely noticeable for surrounding ambience, and gentle, noodley guitar, meant to create a melodic backdrop and not crush the listener with physical abrasion. The album theme established more than any on this song, with the lyrics being somewhat of a thematic aberration, is the production that showcases and gives prowess to that bass, almost attempting to mimic trip-hop within the arena of mid-’90s alternative rock, and not making a terrible showing at it either.
But to hear it from the Rolling Stone dude you’d think the whole album were just PJ Harvey throwing on a straw hat and hurling her fingers through a whole Bo Diddley song book. Nothing could be further from the case, with “C’mon Billy” and “Teclo” barging in as full-bodied, climactic and haunting grunge, and more importantly, “I Think I’m a Mother,” which materializes as an ironic emotional climax of the album, both lyrically and musically.
“I Think I’m a Mother” struts in at number eight, directly following another tune which lyrically tackles the concept of motherhood, “Down by the Water,” albeit bemoaning the loss of a daughter, in that case. “I Think I’m a Mother,” by contrast, is tense and bass-dominated, much like the spooky “Working for the Man” number that encapsulates side a so well, and also sexual and direct in message, aligning it ebulliently with the title track opener. It is the intensely sensual, heathen, grounded reaction to becoming pregnant, fully indulging in the orgiastic glory of the preceding act (remember, Harvey positions “Long Snake Moan” pretty close before, but throws “Down by the Water” in there between, cleverly, so as not to be too obvious with the storyline sequencing). Hauntingly, then, in the excellent and more conventionally rock-and-roll “Send His Love to Me” (which I contend sounds best upon a whole-album listen), he get the opening plaint of “Lover had to leave me”, presumably this “lover” also representing the father to the “mother” as which the artist has proclaimed herself in the track prior. By closeur “The Dancer,” we’ve been treated to a flooring, stylistically multifarious eight-course meal of piercing and captivating female rock and roll, so the obligation for further catharsis and thematic establishment thereon in basically nil. Almost as if autodidactically knowing its role, then, the track spins in discreetly via this guitar that doesn’t even seem so much treated as boiled down to a precious residue, a sonic film that crawls across the bottom of the mix like a silent yellow tabby whose presence is barely felt. Ultimately, this track has every right to be nonsensical, and to fall off the listener’s back like water, which to be sure it does, lassoing in not un-notably one of Harvey’s more inspired vocal efforts, an unscrupulous cry of pointed desire, a feeling which would tellingly become the titular focal point on her next album.