To Bring You My Love
PJ Harvey’s new record, To Bring You My Love, reminds me of the debate over the peculiar powers of the female voice that has been building over the last couple of decades in a few enclaves of critical and cultural theory. In a recent collection of essays, Embodied Voices: Representing Female Vocality in Western Culture (Oxford University Press), edited by Leslie C. Dunn and Nancy A. Jones, the nut of the debate concerns whether or not female voice–in speech or song–somehow bypasses the whole network of linguistic and symbolic systems through which people normally exchange meanings. It has this power, some say, because it recalls a period in the mother-child relationship when an intense vocal bond existed without need for concrete language. Listened to this way, women’s voices inherently carry with them the potential for direct, unmediated communication.
To Bring You My Love is awash in references to mothers and children, and the most immediately arresting thing about it is Harvey’s voice. Her tunes will quickly insinuate their way into your memory, her arrangements will soon reveal their ingenuity, and her lyrics will eventually sink their awesome claws into your consciousness. But the thing that will hit you in the face like the wet kiss at the end of a hot fist is the sound of her voice. Or, to be more accurate, the sound of her voices, since there is no single Harvey cantus here. Instead there are a host of different vocal modes, some created through studio techniques–miking, distortion, electronic treatment–and others conjured from someplace between Harvey’s vocal cords and her mouth. And a peculiarly powerful pack of voices has she.
Perhaps the most striking juxtaposition of vocals on To Bring You My Love comes between “I Think I’m a Mother” and “Send His Love to Me.” The former is a gender bender twisted enough to make Prince scratch his head. Over a rolling and tumbling guitar riff and low-pitched drums, Harvey grunts the tune’s title in a husky, butch, slightly muffled truck-driver growl. Is she a mother or so tough she’s a motherfucker? On “Send His Love to Me,” a totally different vocal land, Harvey belts out the tormented love lyrics with a bright, open-throated gusto reminiscent of Patti Smith circa “Dancing Barefoot” but with a surer punch. That quality of voice reappears on another flamenco-tinged tune–also about mothering–“C’mon Billy.” On “Meet ze Monsta” she pushes her voice in yet another direction, coloring each line with a strained lilt by calling on the wind machine hunkered in her stomach.
On the harrowing “Teclo,” which contains one of the most beautifully conceived arrangements in recent pop music, Harvey also actively manipulates her voice, singing with an overarticulated arch perfectly suited to the song’s gothic hum. If Diamanda Galas were as incisive and unhokey a songwriter as she is a vocalist, she might be doing something this powerful. “The Dancer,” which contains a run of faux orgasms, deploys the same purposeful pomposity. The voice comes as close as it will to Sweet Polly Purebread at the end of the record’s big radio hit, “Down by the Water,” by suddenly turning into a whisper and tonelessly uttering the unsettling words: “Little fish, big fish / Swimmin’ in the water / Come back here, man / Give me my daughter.”
Much ado has been made of Harvey’s blues influences. On To Bring You My Love they’re evident in many aspects of vocal production. Take the title cut, on which she dares to use distortion so thick it might seem like a technical flaw. In fact from the way her voice turns into raw, ragged static when she ups the volume and vibrato, she sounds like she could be singing into a harmonica mike just as blues harpists often did. The heaviest slab of song on the record, “Long Snake Moan,” treats Harvey’s voice with an even more opaque coat of distortion in its explicit call for gender reconstruction: “You wanna hear my long snake moan / You wanna see me grow my own.” The song’s a bass-intensive kick in the head. In fact Mick Harvey of the Bad Seeds (no relation to PJ) contributes the record’s only string bass at this point; elsewhere, PJ uses an organ to give the disc its unique bass sound.
The most unusual vocal technique on To Bring You My Love occurs on “Working for the Man.” It almost sounds as if Harvey’s singing into a cup. Or maybe a phone. Breathing and microphone rustling add to a mounting sense of claustrophobia. Then a second, higher, unobfuscated vocal track harmonizes, recalling the stripped-down technique Harvey used so effectively on the earlier record 4-Track Demos. But it’s that muffled lead that sounds so strange and menacing, so secretive and perverse.
The cover of To Bring You My Love is a takeoff on symbolist painter John Everett Millais’ “Ophelia”–Harvey is supine, nymphlike, immersed in water up to her ears, eyes closed as if listening. Drowning and bathing, like motherhood, are recurrent images on the record. Metaphors of liquid envelopment are also used by proponents of the theory of prelinguistic mother-child sonic communion, who say sound is a matrix similar to the placental matrix that encases and protects the baby and manifests oneness with its mother.
But the sheer variety and play of voice production make To Bring You My Love as good an argument as any against such an essentialist maternal paradigm. Harvey refers to the myths of feminine vocality, actively embodying and manipulating them, but she doesn’t fall back on them. Instead she reveals them as constructions, productions, and myths by treating the female voice–her female voice–as a flexible icon of multiple femininities and polymorphous gender identities. For if she sometimes invites the listener to revel unabashedly in the sound of her voice, to commune like a babe in unmediated sonic bliss, she just as often cuts the umbilicus, distances herself, and turns the warm bath into a storm of hail.