PJ Harvey’s Astonishing Debut

In her new collection of essays, Sex, Art, and American Culture, Camille Paglia conforms to the caricature she presents in her public antics: a gender-based version of the syndrome nicely outlined in its racial form by the Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy in the caustic “Famous and Dandy.” (“What will we do to become famous and dandy / Like Amos and Andy?”) The song’s about how the culture can force even “liberated” blacks into clown roles. Paglia’s the female rendition, only worse: in a sad, Clarence Thomas-ish way, she’s busily constructing an intellectual base for those benefiting from the Backlash. Her methodology by now is obvious: she knocks the left off guard with a feint (defending homosexuality, abortion, drug use, pornography), but then unleashes the zinger, typically something along the lines of an attack on the idea of date rape. To back up her position, Paglia endlessly cites the case of a woman “going upstairs” at a fraternity party. Male sex is hot, Paglia says, and women shouldn’t complain when they get burned.

While Paglia shores up the foundations of the phallocentric worldview, the voices of the already burned still keen in the realms of foxcore and the Riot Girl underground, all luminously laid out by Emily White in the Reader a couple of weeks ago. Spurred by ambitions from the extravagant (We want to put out a record as good as Road to Ruin) to the modest (We want to tour the country in a van), bands like the irresistible L7 (who on Bricks Are Heavy are indeed in Road to Ruin territory) and Bikini Kill, who in a recent show at the Czar Bar blasted their way through “Rebel Girl” and passed out recipes for herbal abortifacients, continue to construct self-conscious alternatives.

But on such a public plane, these groups are necessarily political. Rarer and more difficult are successful works built on the landscape of the emotional and personal; the terrain is even more scarred, and provides even shakier foundations. That’s why predecessors to the debut album of PJ Harvey, Dry, are few and distant: this or that moment of sexual frenzy on a Patti Smith album, or maybe “Why D’Ya Do It,” on Marianne Faithfull’s raging Broken English. (“Why’d you let that trash / Get a hold of your cock, get stoned on my hash?”) But Polly Harvey sees women in a state far past the point of anger or anthem, past, indeed, the point of begging, nearing the point of whole collapse: “You can love her / You can love me at the same time,” Harvey howls in surrender on “Oh My Lover,” the album’s opener.

From there it gets bleaker. Oblique passages float up through her angular, propulsive songs, each shot through with self-disgust and loathing: “I’m happy and bleeding for you.” “Must be a way that I can dress to please him.” “Oh to be your stunning bride.” “I’m walking on water.” Dry’s hero is a Celtic fertility goddess called Sheela-na-gig, who in a ferocious song of the same name stands proudly displaying her genitalia: “Look at these my child-bearing hips / Look at these my ruby red ruby lips.” But Sheela-na-gig’s prizes are dismissed with revulsion.

Dry is a scorching catalog of the horrors of contemporary sexual politics, but it’s never didactic, never really explicit. Harvey wrote the songs, sings them, plays the bitter, wrenching guitar and the scary, lacerating violin. The arrangements are spare, almost empty: the songs on the completed record, in fact, are only slightly tricked up (some cymbal-less drumming is added) from the original mournful demo tracks. In them you can still hear Harvey sitting alone at home, constructing a signal rock ‘n’ roll album one track at a time, inspired, perhaps, by the high jinks of Paglia, whose breasts, Sheela-na-gig-like, spill out of her dress so proudly in her recent portrait in Vanity Fair. Paglia, like the woman in “Oh My Lover,” is begging for attention and ready to please. But on Dry Harvey tells what happens when a woman tries to walk on water for a man. She sinks.

Music to Get Naked By

Crash Worship is a very strange, percussion-and-screams-based outfit, apparently from California: the four-song EP I have is vaguely ominous drum stuff with laid-over synth burbles and all manner of strangled vocalizings. But their concert last year at the late Edge of the Lookingglass was by all accounts something to see. Looking down into the Edge’s concert room, say people who were there, was like “looking into the mouth of hell”: The band played guitars, some sort of horns, and lots of percussion, notably upended steel drums that were doused with lighter fluid, set ablaze, and then banged on. Smoke filled the room, and an accompanying entourage got naked, dancing around and, in at least one instance, actually fucking. The band’s returning this weekend, but there’s been a change of venue since posters announcing the show went up. They’re now scheduled to play Friday night in a loft at 600 W. Cermak. Noisy electronic band Illusion of Safety opens what is alleged to be a $7, 11 PM show.

Scoopsville: Cheap Trick is in town mixing Budokan II, with outtakes from the Japanese shows that produced the cacophonous quintuple platinum album of 1979. It’s due out in December on Sony. Meanwhile, lead singer Robin Zander is completing his first solo album, with, Hitsville hears, a song coauthored by Material Issue’s Jim Ellison. That’ll be out in January, and a new Cheap Trick studio album is due next June. The band plays the Rialto Square Theatre in Joliet October 17.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Maria Mochnacz.