One thing you cannot call the onstage version of Polly Jean Harvey is shy. Easily one of the most inspiring musical artists to emerge in the Nineties, Harvey in performance is a five-foot, four-inch explosion on two legs, alternately crooning, belting or shrieking words suffused with emotions--Love, Hate, Jealousy, Obsession--that demand capitalization. Her movements are theatrical, her manner is flamboyant, and her eyes are like black-jacketed bullets aimed straight at your brain. Ignore her at your peril.
In conversation, though, Harvey is deference itself: quiet, soft-spoken, succinct. She chooses her words with caution and delivers them in a polite near-whisper that wouldn't wake a nodding somnambulist. But that shouldn't imply that her resolve is anything less than steely. Upon being told that the short film Kick Out the Jams (on display at Cleveland's Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum) juxtaposes a video clip of Harvey discussing sexuality in music with shots of Madonna miming masturbation, she responds in a civilized tone that only partially masks a spark of anger. "I haven't heard anything about it," she says, "and I would be immediately alarmed, because I haven't seen it. You can be certain that I will find out more about it and make sure that I get a copy of it, because it reflects on me. And I would like to know who had done that without my permission."
God help the man or woman who made this transgression. Harvey certainly doesn't deny her erotic nature: During the song "Reeling," she invites Robert De Niro to sit on her face, and she later declares, "Even Aphrodite, she got nothin' on me." But she's also a woman who likes--no, demands--to be in control of her image and her art. The discs she's made thus far (full-lengths Dry, Rid of Me and this year's To Bring You My Love, plus a stunning one-shot, 4-Track Demos) are very different from one another, but they share common traits. Most important is the fact that Harvey's songs are extraordinarily intense no matter their tempo, style or instrumentation. She addresses each topic, each concern, with a ferocity and a seriousness of purpose that's positively astounding. Perhaps that's why she's so circumspect when the klieg lights are off. Any attempt to maintain these characteristics 24 hours a day might well be fatal.
Describing the music itself is a more difficult task. Harvey has provided some clues, of course. The CD single of "Man-Size," from the Rid of Me disc, includes a live cover of "Wang Dang Doodle" that makes clear the debt she owes to the blues; likewise, her revitalization of "Highway 61 Revisited" was a nod to its creator, Bob Dylan. She's also been effusive in her praise of the Rolling Stones, and she dutifully checked out the recorded works of Patti Smith after every music fan north of the equator remarked on the occasional similarities between the two. But as is the case with any sound that's truly distinctive, these comparisons can only hint at the scope of the real thing. And Harvey knows it. "I feel very much of this time, this year, this era that I'm in," she notes. "But in terms of labeling me and putting me in a category, I would be unsure of one where I would fit. And I think maybe other people would have a bit of a job finding one as well. I suppose everybody is reluctant to be pigeonholed, but it does happen. Even so, if you were to ask me how to describe what I do, I'm afraid I couldn't help you out."
A knowledge of Harvey's background--she was reared in a rural community two hours from London and apparently enjoyed a pleasant childhood--deepens the enigma. If some terrible trauma transformed young Polly Jean into a driven, zealous soul, it has not been reported--and Harvey, who's in her mid-twenties, has not divulged it. Instead, she prefers observers to simply accept that sometime around 1990, when she formed the trio P.J. Harvey with bassist Stephen Vaughan and drummer Robert Ellis, she was suddenly transformed into a singer with more voices than Sybil, more faces than Eve and more pent-up energy than Saudi Arabia.
Harvey's debut, 1992's Dry, was released by Too Pure, an imprint dedicated to the British noise scene, but it was much more than feedback and frenzy. While the arrangements on the platter were spare, Harvey demonstrated her ambition by including snippets of violin, cello and harmonium. The sound that resulted was a little, well, dry compared with what came later, but songs such as "Oh My Lover," "Sheela-Na-Gig" and the riveting "Happy and Bleeding" vibrate with confidence, passion and discovery.
Rid of Me, by contrast, was an aural barrage in which Harvey gave producer Steve Albini carte blanche to make her music even more extreme. The title cut, "50 Ft. Queenie" and the rest served notice that Harvey was more interested in integrity than airplay. It came as something of a surprise, then, when Harvey asked Flood, a producer who's worked with everyone from U2 to Depeche Mode, to work with her on To Bring You My Love. She insists that commercial considerations did not color this decision. "That didn't even enter my head," she swears. "The fact was that I admired Flood's production and I wanted to use his technique of recording sound because I thought it was right for the songs that I had written, just as I thought that the songs I'd written for Rid of Me lent themselves to the sounds that Steve Albini creates. I'd wanted the feeling you get from Albini at that time, but I'd done that, and I wasn't interested in doing it again."
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Practically every artist offers variations on this statement, but with Harvey, they ring true. Harvey jettisoned Vaughan and Ellis in favor of new collaborators, including guitarist Joe Gore and drummer John Parish, for a reason: The new musical setting forced listeners to reconsider her yet again. "Long Snake Moan," "Send His Love to Me," "Down by the Water" and the rest are simultaneously striking and accessible--a combination many figured was beyond Harvey.
Still, it's not yet clear how many people will be drawn to this new material. Harvey's just coming off a tour with Live, a combo whose audience was largely unfamiliar with her--and while her record sales are up, she wasn't always greeted by standing ovations. "Sometimes people stayed very removed from what we were doing and remained so for the entire set," she reports. "Sometimes they were distant to begin with but then really came round and were quite on our side by the end. And then there were other shows where people seemed to know us somewhat better. As a result, I had to approach my performance in slightly different ways, depending on how the audience was reacting. Sometimes I fed off the crowd, whereas other times I was spurred on by the challenge of reaching an audience that seemingly couldn't be bothered."
Delivered in Harvey's highly proper, lightly accented lilt, this last claim doesn't seem like much of a threat. But you can bet that Harvey means it when she says, "I never want to repeat myself. The most important thing for me is to feel like I'm moving forward. And I think I am."
P.J. Harvey, with Ben Harper. 7:30 p.m. Thursday, October 5, Macky Auditorium, CU-Boulder campus, $20, 830-