If you travel ten miles southwest of Dorchester, you might well stumble upon an idyll: the medieval village of Abbotsbury, etched and hewn out of buttery stone, snug in its surround of green hills. Like so many sleepy rural places, it once housed a thriving monastery. These days, it’s mostly famous for the swannery, established by monks in the Fourteenth Century and now a visitor attraction. Beyond the birds, there’s Chesil Beach, that strange littoral zone that is not quite land and not quite sea. Surveying this shingle spit in one direction and the honeyed houses of the village in the other, St Catherine’s Chapel stands on an outlying hill, sacred sentinel battling the elements, and reputed haunt of unmarried women seeking to offer prayers to the patron saint of spinsters.
Such landmarks do not usually occupy the top thirty charts, but in 1998, PJ Harvey’s single ‘The Wind’ scored a minor hit for this special corner of England. ‘Catherine liked high places’, whispered Harvey, a voice emerging plaintively from the weathered walls. At the time, it was very in keeping with her artistic direction. After the invective of Rid of me came 1995’s To bring you my love, whose lead track ‘Down by the water’ set a saga of drowning babies and stricken mothers to a spooky bossa nova. Despite singing about her genitals and doing well in America, Polly Jean was no Liz Phair. Something more Anglocentric, or even downright eccentric, was afoot, and Is this desire confirmed it: twelve dark songs possessed by the spirits of enigmatic women, lost to the bridleway and the cornfield. These Angelenes, Elises and Joys could have walked straight off a page of Tennyson and into the studio: they’re the heiresses to the moated grange, modern-day Marianas and Mauds. Characteristically, Harvey played awkward and followed up this fog-sodden folk-blues with the slinky uptown gloss of Stories from the City, Stories from the Sea. But her latest, post-2006 direction confirms what fans knew all along, that the mystique of the West Country, land of Arthurian legends, ley-lines and ancient monuments, must count PJ Harvey amongst its natural wonders.
2007’s White Chalk was the first jaw-dropping jerk into the leftfield – a leftfield sown with pungent wild thyme and underlain with the calcified remains of prehistoric peoples. I went to see PJ at the Hay Festival in 2006, where she premiered some of her new numbers with hesitancy and softly-spoken excuses. She seemed genuinely baffled to have beguiled so many people with this mesmerizing material, but though her breathy new soprano was initially a bit of a shock, I began to see continuities with her earlier music almost immediately. Harvey has always been fascinated by how femininities are performed: many still visualise her circa 1995, sleek and catsuited, sporting the most distinctive rock lipstick since Robert Smith’s Crayola smudge. Her White Chalk persona made good on the promises of ‘The Wind’, casting Polly Jean as an aloof wanderer across the ancient cliffs of Dorset. It also played with Victorian archetypes: the cover image called to mind the reclusive poet Emily Dickinson, or else, the lonely antiheroines of Bronte novels. Then there was the fragile, rudimentary piano playing, heavy with reverb: a sickly child picking out broken chords in the drawing room. She was both the troubled governess and the wraithlike charge; this was an album with multiple turns of the screw.
Her subsequent LP with regular collaborator John Parish, A Woman a man walked by, was by turns a hoot and a shiver, veering from the title track’s sneers at some creep’s ‘lily livered little parts’ to ‘The Soldier’, a broken mandolin weep whose battle-stricken sadness anticipated what was to come – which was something else again, the recent Mercury winner, Let England Shake. Just when we thought Polly had locked herself in the attic or dashed her frock on the rocks, she emerged as Britain’s ‘official war song correspondent’, mining the deep seams of folk balladry in laments for the fallen and grand, mysterious state-of-the-nation singalongs. When I hear ‘The words that maketh murder’, I want to lead a procession of likemindeds with autoharps across the top of the Golden Cap. It’s that bloody good. Even better than Kate Bush’s ‘Army Dreamers’. There really is nothing quite like it in any other artist’s canon; no other mainstream singer-songwriter finds the world in a grain of grit.
Nevertheless, on hearing of PJ’s deserved success last week, I headed for her first album Dry, to remind me how it all began. Understandably, the ugly chapped-lips cover photo and confrontational lyrics caused critics to revel in its rock poses on release, and she could certainly sound American (or at least Patti Smithican) when she wanted to. With hindsight, though, those Rs are unmistakable – a delicious westerly burr. And those twin preoccupations – the mythology of womanhood and the profanities of England past – are allowed to sing out with a kind of pained joy. ‘Sheela na gig’ is the apotheosis of this, a reminder that there is whoredom in the most sacred of places. But despite being a thrilling statement of intent, it makes me feel a little queasy. Perhaps it’s too naked. I like my Polly dressed.
Listen to that rhythm. It’s like the bang of roughshod peasants in the barn: clogs on cobbles. Thomas Hardy might have written it into one of his tales of Wessex woe. This is what I see when ‘Dress’ kicks up a cloud of dust over my speakers. It’s all taking off, the whirls of dirt, the Tesses and Fannys, the fiddles and basses reeling; only here, the stringed instruments thwack and scrape, too close to the bridge, too close to the bone. PJ isn’t one of those apple-cheeked girls who stir the loins of the gentlemen farmers. She’s a thorny sort of English rose, and her movements come out all spiked and barbed. She thought that assuming the dress might create some erotic charge. She thought it might do well for her prospects. But it’s like negotiating a tightrope. She confides ‘it’s hard to walk in the dress, it’s not easy’; the ‘dancing costume’ is a drag, a pantomime, a peril. Yes, it’s the performativity of gender if you wish: straitened sexual identity and such. It’s Angela Carter’s Magic Toyshop, the novel in which a young girl naughtily puts on her mother’s wedding gown and lightning strikes the mirror. But the savage beauty of ‘Dress’ is kin and kith to that of White Chalk and Let England Shake too; it’s an artist taking the whats and wheres of her own environment and twisting them into knots. As she twirls and totters, she’s ‘spilling over like a heavy-loaded fruit tree’: you can take the girl out of Dorset, but she’ll scrump to save herself.
And that’s what ‘Dress’ is, really: a sacrifice, Rite of Spring stuff. John Peel knew as much when he noted that Polly Jean is ‘crushed’ by her arrangements, ‘as if the air is literally being sucked out of them’. The dress is ‘so damn tight tonight’, though the contradictory music – loose and taut, controlled and wild – suggests that if you dance till you’re giddy, the high momentarily eclipses the pain. By the last verse, hope has been abandoned, but PJ’s voice is released from the tatters of her garb, up the octave and unfettered. I always hear the line as ‘filthy tyke, the dress is filthy’, loving the way Polly Jean addresses herself. It’s actually ‘tight’, but no matter: the lines are still glorious. She’s falling flat, and her arms are empty – collapsing to the floor, but also ‘falling’ in that other sense, joining the legions of ruined maids in storybooks. Were those apples I saw bending the branches of that heavy-loaded fruit tree? It’s certainly allegorical, but it’s also visually and aurally immediate. We hear her, we see her tripping over her smutted rags. It’s there at the very end of the song, in the dizzy repeated chords that bring PJ, and us, collapsing onto the barn floor. Fable, fear, and sexual frustration all come together in the thrill of the jig.
I’ve had my own dancing nightmares. I’ve been to ceilidhs where the floor is so polished you’re frightened of splitting your head open on the parquet. I’ve also found myself spinning like a top and plummeting like a skittle as I listen to ‘Dress’. By the time it’s disintegrated into that catgut cello, I’m ready to offer my prayers to St Catherine, to St Vitus, to any god pagan or otherwise who might restore some kind of equilibrium. I yearn for a bit of Abbotsbury or the gentle contours of the Cerne Valley. But like all great English poets, PJ Harvey knows that underneath that rolling green, there is spilt blood and tumult. She can not keep still. Let’s hope she never will.