“Call me Lazarus,” growls Polly Jean Harvey on the astonishing To Bring You My Love. It’s funny, it’s impressive, and we should take her at her word. Never a shrinking violet on record — and perhaps tired of being called a slip of a girl — Harvey bawls and shouts and moans her way through a set of blues-inspired tunes that are strange, skewed and solitary. “It’s my voodoo working,” she declaims elsewhere, and there’s nothing to say but “Yes, yes!”
On her first three albums, the heralded Dry (1992), the more problematic Rid of Me (1993) and the Rid of Me spinoff, 4-Track Demos (1993), Harvey rocked and roiled her way through female traumas and triumphs. While working traditional thematic turf — the body and soul of the suffering woman — she ripped to shreds staid truths about femininity. Such paradoxes generate power.
Harvey reckons with more than that, too: She has ambitions to remake rock & roll and its myths in her own guise. In the process she stretches her musical references. Her covers of such classics as Bob Dylan’s “Highway 61 Revisited” (on Rid of Me) and Willie Dixon’s “Wang Dang Doodle” (on John Peel’s British radio program) show an abiding interest in taking on the past, more particularly its male legends. In the same spirit in which Liz Phair answered the Rolling Stones on Exile in Guyville — but to a very different end — Harvey dive bombs the canon on To Bring You My Love.
She may get her sense of play from Captain Beefheart and her sense of drama from Patti Smith, but it’s the blues and blues-schooled greats whom Harvey transfigures — John Lee Hooker, Howlin’ Wolf, Jagger-Richards, Hendrix, Zeppelin. Nevertheless, listeners will probably find To Bring You My Love a relief after the beating producer Steve Albini gave the occasionally glorious Rid of Me. This time, Harvey co-produces (with U2 producer Flood and percussionist John Parish) for a result that combines Dry‘s ecstasy with Rid‘s agony. Harvey plays organ on every cut — along with singing and playing some guitar — adding still more dimension. The other musicians — guitarist Joe Gore, percussionists Jean-Marc Butty and Joe Dilworth, plus a string quartet on three tracks — help fuel the fire.
To Bring You My Love, full of portents, searching for grace, pulls its themes straight from the mythological terrain of the blues. Harvey forces personae to fit this music; her imagery is highly symbolic — not personal but essentially private. On the title track, over a chugging bass riff, she sings: “I was born in the desert/I’ve been down for years/Jesus, come closer/I think my time is near…. I’ve lain with the devil/Cursed God above/Forsaken heaven/To bring you my love.” On a hissing, rubbery blast called “Long Snake Moan,” a raw-voiced Harvey warns: “Bring me, lover/All your power…. In my dreaming/You’ll be drowning…. You oughta hear my long snake moan.”
On “The Dancer,” Harvey feelingly sings: “He came riding fast/Like a phoenix out of fire flames/He came dressed in black with a cross bearing my name/He came bathed in light and the splendor and glory/I can’t believe what the Lord has finally sent me.” And then she gives a few toy shrieks: it’s so over the top that you’re not sure her vision of a male savior on a horse isn’t a put-on.
So what’s this young, white, bluesdrenched woman doing? In attempting to create a sexual landscape as charged as the Midnight Rambler’s, Harvey envisions a teeming underworld where she is victim, aggressor and accomplice, song by song. The sexual menace, the left-behind woman, allegories about a son, a daughter, a “blue-eyed whore” — all these are put in the service of a primal vision on To Bring You My Love: Harvey’s bitter struggles with her demons and her wicked, wanton sympathy for the devil.