Monday, May 8, 2017

It Came From the '90s: Polly Jean Meets Ze Monsta


This series looks back at the 1990s and its influence on the generation of people who came of age during the decade.

In 1995, Polly Jean Harvey released her third studio album, and first proper solo outing, To Bring You My Love. It received near-universal praise and, while Harvey was already a star, helped elevate her into even greater worldwide stardom. This exceptional album retained elements of the awesomely heavy alt-blues rock sound of Dry and Rid of Me while adding more musical and lyrical textures to the mix. Its songs are about desire and loss, with many of them loaded with Biblical references and imagery. The album felt like a major artistic statement from Harvey at the time and hasn't lost any of its urgency over the years.

During the '95 tour supporting the album, Harvey elevated her live act to new heights as well. She exploded out of her shell, unleashing a new style, charisma, and electricity to her performances that only broadened her appeal. For proof, surf YouTube or look for full-show streams or downloads from that year. She was an absolute beast on that tour, setting aside her guitar to prowl the stage like a panther, moaning and screaming one minute, singing softy and beautifully the next. This video of "Meet Ze Monsta" from the '95 Glastonbury Festival is a perfect example of what made Harvey so appealing during that era: she's absolutely on fire, seemingly able to will herself to do anything, all while making it look organically effortless.


The spectacular pink catsuit!  The glam-rock makeup! The epic hair flips! The mesmerizing dancing! From the first note, she's in constant motion: swaying her hips, prancing with a mischievous confidence, stomping emphatically, crouching down low, springing up like a cat, and slyly smiling with knowing delight throughout. Her band tears into the song too, ratcheting up the already menacing heaviness of the album cut. It's an incendiary and iconic performance.


Iconic is an appropriate adjective to use when discussing Harvey during the To Bring You My Love era. The album and her live shows, including television performances, moved Harvey into the upper echelons or rock. Songs like "Long Snake Moan" and "C'mon Billy" practically seethe with passionate longing, while "Down by the Water" and "To Bring You My Love" are richly expressive and moody dirges infused with a palpable sense of dread. In the slinky slow-groove "Working for the Man," she asks, "Don't you know yet who I am?" and the answer, clearly, is that she can be anyone she wants to be. No longer just the quiet, petite woman from the English countryside who could produce a ferocious racket with her voice and guitar, she was now also achieving a level of performance art often reserved for the most accomplished of rock and pop stars. She was like Jagger, Madonna, and Prince on stage, all rolled into one, except with a modern rock integrity that was unparalleled. Plus, she held onto the smaller-scale charms that made her so intriguing to begin with.


As a faithful devotee for decades—there is no musical artist I love more than her, period—I'm captivated by all of her many musical shifts in style and composition, but this era will always be extra special. In '95, it was clear that she was reaching the big time, which can often signal the apex of an artist's career. Instead, she used it as a springboard to achieve further greatness.

Anyone who's followed Harvey's career knows she's made a habit of taking hard left turns, album after album. That's one of her strengths, and something both critics and fans love most about her. She can create an album of immaculately constructed pop music perfection like Stories from the City, Stories from the Sea, and then follow that up with the starkly abrasive punk rock of Uh Huh Her. Consequently, her anti-formula is her formula: for more than twenty-five years she's built as unique and diverse a catalog of music as anyone. You can try to compare her to other musicians, but ultimately she's incomparable. In '95, she proved this repeatedly, first with an absolutely killer album, followed by a live act that left audiences awestruck by her beautiful, raw, and explosive performances. After two phenomenal studio albums, plenty of us recognized her as a star. In '95, the rest of the world simply caught up to this fact.

*****

Let's close out with an audio-video salute to PJ Harvey in '95  First, here's an essential hour-long compilation of Harvey's television appearances that year promoting To Bring You My Love.


Here's the full audio from the transcendent 6/24/95 Glastonbury Festival set.


And in case you want to see further video evidence of just how good that Glastonbury set was, here's Polly Jean performing "Long Snake Moan" from the same show.



This one's from 5/11/95 at the Kentish Town Forum in London. The video's a bit dark and the audio's not great, but it's worth checking out because the power of the music and her stage presence still shine through.


Finally, a brief interview with MTV where she discusses her musical evolution, how much she's enjoying using her body to articulate the words on stage now, and how much fun she's having playing dress up with her glamorous new style. She's thoughtful and reserved, providing a fascinating juxtaposition with her vampy and extroverted stage persona of the period.

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