PJ Harvey

at the Vic, October 28

In the October 26 issue of the New Yorker, in the occasional department called “A Critic at Large,” Hilton Als wrote such a misguided meditation on PJ Harvey and the dire state of popular music that I found myself wondering what exactly a writer has to do to earn this catchall “at large” license. The rubric itself implies dilettantism but also breadth; at the least, a reader expects that a critic so openly granted permission to dabble should be a keen observer. But Als fails even that simple litmus test.

In his first paragraph, he attacks Beck: “His branche cool stems not from his doing anything as old-fashioned as playing a musical instrument but from his ability to synthesize computer-generated sounds that play like bright commercial jingles.” Bzzzt–I’m sorry, the correct answer was: “Beck played almost all of the instruments that were sampled and looped to create the album Odelay.” If Als had done even the most rudimentary research he would have stumbled on this fact, not to mention the two albums of old-fashioned musical-instrument playing Beck has also released. Later in the same paragraph he takes a swipe at Beck’s “slick pimp suits.” Check me on this if you’ve ever seen Beck or have spent any time at all in your local Village Discount: are Beck’s suits “slick pimp” or are they mismatched, intentionally geeky, thrift store couture? Als ought to take a stroll down to NYU and see how the kids are dressing these days. He might be shocked by the sudden explosion in the campus pimp population.

Als, who is black, goes on to note that white artists like Beck, the Beastie Boys, and the Backstreet Boys have “borrowed extensively from black music,” by which he obviously means they have “stolen from black music.” But anyone who’s paying attention to hip-hop will tell you that the most egregious (and extensive) borrowing these days is being done by a black artist, Puff Daddy, who has “borrowed extensively” from white artists Sting and Led Zeppelin, and by “borrowed extensively” I mean “taken songs in their entirety and rapped some lame shit over top of them.” If Als had pursued this line of thought more fully, he might have also noted that “Kashmir,” the Led Zeppelin song that Puff Daddy uses in his “Come With Me,” borrows extensively from Arabic music. Or that white hip-hop artist Fatboy Slim borrowed extensively from white artists the Who to create his breakthrough single “Going Out of My Head.”

Instead, the Beck bashing turns out to be Als hemming and hawing before he posits that white rock singer PJ Harvey does a better job acting “black” than not only Beck but also black R & B singer Lauryn Hill. If you think it’s taking me a while to get around to PJ in this essay, see how long it would take you to find her in his (hint: six pages) if there weren’t a gaudy pastel illustration of her on the second page, with Hill peeking out from behind. The caption reads, “Polly Jean Harvey may make a better soul-music diva for the new age than Lauryn Hill.”

Here’s where I depart from Als’s racial line drawing for some line drawing of my own: I’m pissed off by the assertion that Polly Harvey is a soul singer, and I’m equally pissed off by the surfeit of critics who have claimed that she’s a blues singer. Just to set the record straight, Harvey plays rock music. It’s frightening that so many people who write about rock music can’t identify it even when they hear it presented as purely, as surefootedly, and as traditionally as it is by Harvey. Rock obviously relies on elements of the blues (as well as country, swing, soul, gospel, and yes, sometimes even Arabic music), frequently employing 1-4-5 chord progressions and cyclical 12-bar patterns. But Harvey’s body of work is less directly indebted to the blues than that of, say, the Rolling Stones–who, incidentally, are widely known as “the World’s Greatest Rock ‘n’ Roll Band.”

At the Vic recently, Harvey and her band played rock music that owed at least as much to the arty new wave of her English youth as to Robert Johnson. Her band–four short-haired, broad-shouldered gentlemen wearing predominantly black clothing and work shoes–recalled in sound as well as appearance the halcyon days of the Fall and the Wedding Present, with a repetitious yet restrained blend of melody and dissonance. Harvey’s connection to the blues is less about chords or structure than about words: she infuses the rock song with the raw simplicity of a folk form. Unlike the Lilith Fair set, whose lyrics usually point to a prescient author with a unique psychointellectual perspective, Harvey sets her lyrics up as archetypes–suggestively shaped but empty vessels that hint at universal themes like loss, desire, and despair. Her titles are familiar, even cliched–“The Garden,” “The River,” “The Wind”–yet she milks them for their symbolic value. She fearlessly treads well-worn territory, knowingly eschewing the journal-scouring, personal-history-divulging, name-naming, confessional approach more in vogue among her singer-songwriter sisters.

But as the old saw goes, it’s the singer, not the song. Rock places little emphasis on technical virtuosity or compositional complexity; to call the songs of Bob Dylan, the Sex Pistols, Buddy Holly, the Ramones, and the Stones rudimentary by the melodic, harmonic, and structural standards of jazz or classical music is not to knock them. In rock ‘n’ roll high school, primitivism is your hall pass. Ultimately it’s the singer who sells the song. King Crimson, Steely Dan, and Gastr del Sol made compelling music, but none of them made great rock music because they all aspired to the collegiate notion that smarter is better–and none of them had a great rock singer. Harvey belongs firmly in the tradition that links the Elvis Presley of the 50s with the Iggy Pop of the early 70s with the Patti Smith of the late 70s with the Mark E. Smith of the early 80s–the tradition of performers who give themselves up to the song, whose performances are physical events, providing a cathartic outlet for both themselves and their audiences.

From the very first chorus of the title track from Harvey’s brilliant new Is This Desire? (Island) her voice cracks as if she herself is cracking beneath the weight of her plea: “Is this desire / Enough, enough / To lift us higher / To lift above?” She inhabits the world’s broadest lyric in such a way as to give the impression that we, as listeners, are eavesdropping on a terribly private moment–not a rumination on a past moment, but a moment being lived as we listen. Her voice is the sound of her heart breaking and she makes the listener feel like a trespasser.

Harvey hails from Yeovil, a small town in the southwest of England. But at the Vic, in pink stiletto-heeled ankle boots, a lizard-skin print skirt, and a red spaghetti-strap top, she was Elvis, she was Iggy Pop, she was Mick Jagger. She exhibits the same knack for turning scrappy, familiar-sounding elements into transcendent, era-defining magic that they once did. She didn’t merely present her songs (as, for instance, Liz Phair had done on the same stage the three nights before); she lived them, writhing in their snakelike skin in a desperate attempt to shed the burdens and traumas she herself had sewn into them. Watching her deliver songs from Is This Desire? as well as selections from her previous four solo releases, I had the distinct sensation that I was watching a legend at work.

It’s precisely this effect, I think, that makes so many critics insist on calling her anything but a rock singer–it’s as if they don’t believe rock is still capable of taking their breath away. But it’s blues and soul, not rock, that are dead. Rock, which by its very design must absorb and process purer forms, is very much alive–those shivers that run up and down your spine during a PJ Harvey performance being the musical equivalent of a lively EKG.