Song You Need to Know: PJ Harvey’s Ethereal Cover of Nick Cave’s ‘Red Right Hand’
Nick Cave’s and PJ Harvey’s music have always shared a similar gloomy sensibility, but where his was often stark and gothic, hers was ethereal and impressionistic. The two artists’ worlds collided in the mid Nineties; they collaborated on the morose “Henry Lee” for Cave’s album Murder Ballads and dated for about a year, and their time together inspired several songs on Cave’s The Boatman’s Call. Since then, they’ve neared orbits — both writing songs for the same Marianne Faithfull album, Harvey welcoming Cave’s former Bad Seeds and Birthday Party bandmate and “Red Right Hand” cowriter Mick Harvey (no relation) into her band — but they’ve kept a distance.
Now PJ Harvey has covered Nick Cave’s most recognizable song, “Red Right Hand,” for the upcoming soundtrack to the BBC2 series Peaky Blinders. The song, which takes lyrical influence from Milton’s Paradise Lost, also serves as the series’ theme music. On Cave’s original recording, from his 1994 LP Let Love In, he sings menacingly over a Latin rhythm and inchworm church organ melodies. It has been featured in several movies and TV shows over the past quarter century (notably it was in The X-Files), and several artists have covered it for Peaky Blinders, including Snoop Dogg and Iggy Pop.
Harvey’s rendition is an elegiac ballad, resting on piano notes that swipe out of the ether. Her voice moans and whines as she sings of the song’s “tall, handsome man in a dusty black coat with a red right hand.” The first half of the song has a different kind of chilling effect than Cave’s, and the music comes more into focus before fading out, making you want more. She doesn’t sing all of the song’s verses, but in this guise, Cave’s tale of a cult-leader-type guru sounds more like a warning than a narration, and it lingers.
She originally cut the song in 2014 for the series second season, but it’s surfacing online again because of the soundtrack. At the time, music producer Flood sought her out for the cover to give the track a less “American” feel (which is odd since Cave is an Australian who had lived in England for around three decades at that point.) “We’re trying to make it feel much more European and British and PJ fits that bill perfectly,” he told BBC6 at the time (via NME). “I phoned Polly up and she was very interested. We’re trying to deconstruct all of Polly’s material and then weave it through, it’s very cutting-edge and modern.”
Earlier this year, Cave wrote about his breakup with Harvey for his Q&A website The Red Hand Files. “The truth of the matter is that I didn’t give up on PJ Harvey, PJ Harvey gave up on me,” he wrote. “There I am, sitting on the floor of my flat in Notting Hill, sun streaming through the window (maybe), feeling good, with a talented and beautiful young singer for a girlfriend, when the phone rings. I pick up the phone and it’s Polly. ‘Hi,’ I say. ‘I want to break up with you.’ ‘Why?! I ask. ‘It’s just over,’ she says. I was so surprised I almost dropped my syringe.”
The Peaky Blinders soundtrack, which is due out November 15th, features the Cave and Harvey renditions of “Red Right Hand,” as well as songs by the White Stripes, Arctic Monkeys, and David Bowie, among others.
Find a playlist of all of our recent Songs You Need to Know selections on Spotify.
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