P. J. Harvey Is Keeping Her Shirt On
Walls, Seth Colter, Newsweek
Byline: Seth Colter Walls
The first-person characters in P. J. Harvey's early songs never thought twice about oversharing. "I wanna bathe in milk, eat grapes," she declared in the fuzzed-out opening of 1993's "Reeling," before howling: "Robert De Niro, sit on my face." That tune was an outtake from Rid of Me, an album with songs titled "Rub 'Til It Bleeds," "Man-Size," and "50 Ft. Queenie." Rid of Me's cover also showed Harvey topless in the shower; the outtakes collection that followed displayed her freshly toweled off, though still damp and clad in a midriff-baring halter top. The dark-haired singer's lissome look--with a face that starts delicately at the chin before broadening and toughening around her deep-set eyes--provided the perfect contrast to the violence of her vocals, which promised listeners a "force 10 hurricane."
She is less confrontational now. "When I was writing Dry and Rid of Me, I was 17 or 18 years old. Now I'm 41," she tells NEWSWEEK from her home in Dorset, England. "Of course I'm not going to be writing about the same things!" And yet Harvey's arresting new record, Let England Shake, doesn't just reveal a fresh emphasis on subject matter--it also betrays a new approach to building songs from the bottom up. Whereas she once wrote lyrics to fit a song's rhythm, Harvey now runs her program in reverse, composing music to fit--or run counter to--her imagery. In many of England's grim songs, which are preoccupied with injured soldiers and empires past their prime, that fog is cut with the sunlight of Harvey's new chamber-suite impulses: a marching-band saxophone here, a sarcastically bright trumpet reveille there. …