In some ways it’s a little awkward to be celebrating the milestone birthday of an album that’s barely younger than myself. I was only three years old when To Bring You My Love was released. It would be another ten years before I truly discovered Harvey in all her glory through her Mercury Prize winning fifth album Stories From the City, Stories From the Sea. For the past decade though, I have been a PJ Harvey obsessive. Her transformation as an artist, a woman and an icon over the years continues to fascinate me. Despite this, I’m always continually drawn back to her work in the 1990s. Dry and Rid of Me were masterpieces of angry and fervent rock, while Is This Desire is still one of the most intriguing and experimental records in Harvey’s canon.
To Bring You My Love, though, stands as a singular and game-changing work in her 90s roster. Even its title suggested a change of form and direction in Harvey’s musical career. Released two years prior, Rid of Me was an often harrowing and near-the-knuckle ride into some of the more psychotic sides of the female mind. Tales of revenge, subversion of patriarchy and attacks on ideas of traditional masculinity abounded, punctuated with overt images of sexuality and desire. It was also, primarily, a rock record in the strictest sense; it was the last album recorded by the PJ Harvey trio, which disbanded after the release of Rid of Me. Yes, she worked with U2 and Depeche Mode producer Flood on the album as well as long-term musical collaborator John Parish (whom she would go on to make two collaborative albums with) but To Bring You My Love feels masterminded by a newly free Harvey.
With the disbanding, Harvey arguably became more free to flex some additional skills. To Bring You My Love was not only more musically diverse but also more lyrically and thematically complex (no mean feat considering some of the imagery she had previously employed). This is instantly heard in the isolated, barren and altogether haunting tone of the opening, title track. The loose guitar that Harvey picks and strums at, occasionally breaking into an aggressive riff, is only eventually accompanied by a faded organ. It’s also the first introduction to the heavy use of religious imagery that Harvey would continue to employ in many of her later works; “I’ve lain with the devil, cursed God above” she growls, evoking the heavy senses of loss and longing that pervades the rest of the album. While not a religious person, Harvey’s use of Biblical imagery from this point on became a defining feature of many of her best lyrical compositions, whether they were literal or metaphorical.
Biblical imagery wasn’t the sole lyrical backbone of To Bring You My Love. Indeed, many moments of the album return to old issues and themes examined by Dry and Rid of Me, only this time with subtle twists that arguably create a bigger impact than some of the more shocking lines found on those works. ‘Working For The Man,’ undoubtedly the most sonically spectral and wraithlike song on the album, employs hushed bass keyboard and a creeping guitar melody to astonishing effect, but it’s Harvey’s muffled vocals that are the most nightmarish aspect here. On first listen, there’s only one line that is perfectly audible, Harvey’s deceptively nonchalant and throwaway “I’m just working for the man.” What this delivery hides is a horrid narrative of prostitution told entirely from the male perspective. Any illusions that this is simply a sonically darker version of Dolly Parton’s ‘9 To 5’ are dashed in the first two lines: “In the night I look for love/ Get my strength from the man above.” Again, it’s Harvey treading over increasingly familiar Biblical ground. This time, though, it’s not a search for the ‘love’ that the title tracked yearned for. Instead, this is a truly seedy cruise around the streets that sees the ‘protagonist’ picking up women and doing the Lord’s work. Except, though while not explicitly stated, you can guess that this man is actually murdering the women. “Don’t you know yet who I am?” he snarls, before convincing himself manically at the end that he’s “doing good” through his work. Nothing on ‘Working For The Man’ is overt, and it’s all the more sinister for it.
The female experience isn’t any easier on the album as a whole. Both ‘C’mon Billy’ and ‘The Dancer’ deal with the loss of a lover from a woman’s perspective, each in powerful but wildly different ways. ‘C’mon Billy’ sees Harvey hammering an acoustic guitar as strings swell in the background, while ‘The Dancer’ reprises the eerie tones of the organ with a hypnotic electric guitar strum. On ‘C’mon Billy,’ Harvey sounds as if she can barely hold back her emotional distress as the song wears on. Documenting the protagonist’s love of the titular character, how she bore his son and that he’s the “only one,” there’s more than a hint of desperation tinging each passing line and Harvey moans, wails, growls and eventually pants her way through her impassioned plea. ‘The Dancer’ initially sees her in a more composed vocal mode, able to spout longer lines and platitudes about the wayward lover, praying every day and night that they’ll return. But whereas on ‘C’mon’ there’s a deep sense of loss and longing (you can genuinely believe that the unnamed woman deeply loves him), ‘The Dancer’ evokes sexual tension much more. Eventually Harvey ends up moaning and screaming, blurring the lines between love and lust. In Harvey’s world, women aren’t just emotional sponges or romanticised ideals; they have strong sexual needs too, ones that can drive them to the brink of insanity.
Sex in general isn’t ever particularly far away from any of Harvey’s early lyrics and while on To Bring You My Love it’s often embedded into oblique lines, muffled sentiments and orgasmic moans, there is one explosive moment where it comes to the fore. Undoubtedly the most musically ballsy of all the songs on the album, ‘Long Snake Moan’ returned to familiar ground for Harvey with its epic guitar riffs and clashing drums and lyrics that leave little to the imagination. It’s yet another delve into the twisted mind of a masochist, this time looking into the potentially erotic nature of asphyxiation as the character dreams about having orgasms while drowning their lover. What’s wonderful about ‘Long Snake Moan’ is that it’s genderless. There’s no imagery that suggests the sex of the dreamer, so there’s no telling who holds the power in the relationship. While it could be a traditional narrative of female subjugation and patriarchal rule, it could equally be a subversion that sees the woman dominating the man.
On the subject of drowning, the act managed to help Harvey gain some traction in the US with the single ‘Down By The Water.’ Almost entirely electronic, with the exception of some minor percussion and orchestral elements, the song borrows from the American folk song ‘Salty Dog Blues,’ particularly the Lead Belly version, to narrate the tale of a woman drowning her daughter in a river. On the surface it doesn’t seem like the best grounding for a successful single, but it’s perhaps the fact that the narrative is so heinous that it finally broke Harvey into the mainstream. With Dry and Rid of Me, Harvey’s lyrics were often interpreted as autobiographical in nature. For a variety of reasons, it’s impossible to make the same mistake with ‘Down By The Water.’ As such, it rightfully cemented Harvey’s place not only as a skilful songwriter but also as a master storyteller. Harvey proved she could weave together a fictional, mysterious and altogether believable narrative on a variety of topics with ease.
As such, To Bring You My Love helped to cement Harvey’s position as one of Britain’s best modern songwriters. Even twenty years after its release, it’s a haunting, immersive, sometimes uncomfortable album to experience. Now I’m nearly 24, I can appreciate the lyrical and musical craft behind the album more than I did as a teen. As such, I’ve learned to appreciate and cherish it more as the years have passed. In another two decades, I might well still be singing the praises of Harvey’s third LP for different reasons. One thing is certain though: it will still be one of the most important albums in my ever-increasing collection.