PJ Harvey is just one of those human beings so filled to the brim with eclectic, creative, awesomeness that it can be hard to believe so many gorgeous ideas and impressive facets exist in one person. The singer-songwriter, poet, artist, multi-instrumentalist, composer is mixing some of those disparate interests and divergent passions together as she preps to record her ninth studio album. Recording of the album begins this week and it will be happening in public, with PJ inviting fans to come to “experience the flow and energy of the recording process.”
Working out of Somerset House in London, Harvey and her team will be recording and producing the album behind a one-way mirror. Visitors can look in while Harvey labors away on her follow-up to the award-winning Let England Shake (2011).
The whole process is installation-like in the way it invites audiences to get an inside look at an artist as she create her work. With this project PJ is setting sail on an undeniably fresh artistic journey — but that shouldn’t be surprising coming from a woman who has continued to develop a dark, sensual, one-of-a-kind sound all while penning lyrics that tout feminine power. While we don’t know much about the album just yet, we are crossing fingers and toes that she keeps bestowing us with her special brand of lyrics so thought-provoking they make your head hurt.
While Harvey hasn’t aligned with the feminist movement, there is a dramatically healthy dose of highly woman-positive lyrics in her songs. We’re sounding off on (and close reading) a few of our favorites as we count down ’til January 16 when the public recording begins.
“Oh damn your chest-beating, just you stop your screaming
It’s splitting through my head and swinging from the ceiling
Move it over, Tarzan, can’t you see I’m bleeding?
I’ve called you by your first name, good Lord it’s me – Jane!”
“Me-Jane” is a thumping track decrying overpowering masculine forces that drown out Jane’s voice, erase her self-determination, and cause her harm. Even when she’s calling Tarzan by his first name — a sure sign of familiarity and equality — he doesn’t seem to recognize her. This song is a demand for acknowledgement.
“Look at these,
my child-bearing hips
look at these, my ruby-red ruby lips
look at these, my work strong-arms
you’ve got to see my bottle full of charm
lay it all at your feet.
You turn around and say back to me
“Sheela-na-gig, you exhibitionist.’”
“Sheela-na-gig” is a twisted, high-energy song. On one level it tells a story of a jilted lover, whose man sees her body as unclean and openly insults her for its imperfections. On the other, it’s celebrating — rather than condemning — female sexuality. In the history of Ireland and Great Britain, a Sheela-na-gig is a type of fertility goddess seen as a protection against evil. Lots of layers here.
“Hey I’m one big queen
No one can stop me
Red light red green
Sat back and watching
I’m your new one
Second to no one
No sweat I’m clean
Nothing can touch me”
“50ft Queenie” is a gender-bending, raw, and brash two-and-half minutes of posturing — or at least playfully teasing the typical male posturing we hear so much about in music. Harvey undermines this fight for male dominance by asserting herself as queen and a king. Throughout the song, she jokes about her metaphorical endowment, her prowess, and her superiority.
“Silence my lady head
Get girl out of my head
Douse hair with gasoline
Set it light and set it free”
Like “50ft Queenie,” “Man Size” is caught up in a gender game as Harvey sings about taking on the roles and expectations assigned to a masculine person. The most striking part of the song comes at the end as she struggles with her femininity, trying to burn off and free herself. She isn’t trying to kill who she is as a woman but she’s trying to “set it free” from the confines of society’s expectations of the sexes.
Who the F***?
“I’m not like other girls
You can’t straighten my curls
I’m not like other girls
You can’t straighten my curls
One of the most blatant middle-fingers in Harvey’s discography is “Who the F***?” during which she rages on and on about control and censorship. Everything about this song is a full-stop: you aren’t going to tame her “curls” and you aren’t going to be able to shape her into whatever model of femininity you idealize. It’s just won’t happen. No!
“Filthy tight, this dress is filthy.
I’m falling flat and my arms are empty,
clear the way, better get it out of this room
a fallen woman in dancing costume”
This song is so easy to read as some simple anthem about a night out, dig a little deeper though and you’ll be rewarded. It’s really about beauty expectations, dressing to impress, and how society judges us on those superficial and easily changeable things. The dress is “filthy” because it represents so much more than a night out: she’s putting on a “costume” to appease someone’s standard of sexy. She isn’t “fallen” because of any act other than giving herself over to this allusion and letting others define her. “Dress” is about owning your body and questioning “Why do we dress to please?”
So much of what PJ sings is open to interpretation but everything she puts out has always had an immense amount of heart. She tells women’s stories, from women’s perspectives, and when she muses over love or unkind partners, she’s real. She reminds us that we can’t always have our guns blazing, but we can be fragile and scared and strong — and those emotions aren’t mutually exclusive.