Throw your pain in the river: PJ Harvey’s effect on me

I

There are plenty of clever reasons I could give you to make my case that PJ Harvey’s “Is this desire?” is one of her (and really anyone’s) greatest musical creations. Not least is her own opinion.

There would be a hint of anger in my voice if you argued the point.

I’d find a way to dismantle your resistance as we fought.

Afterward, we’d try to rebuild, but to be honest, things wouldn’t be the same.

All that is for another time though, because I need to be really be up front that all my Picky-Bastards-qualified posturing about an album’s production quality, performance, conviction, experimentalism, excetera, can be a bit of a facade. It’s all true (when I say it – disregard the others’ opinions as you wish), but it’s not usually the underlying drive when I love an album. No surprise, perhaps: I dress up visceral reactions to music in a dislocated language that isn’t so hard to speak about, or to hear.

But “Is this desire?” is one of those albums where no list of arguments can equal my 2 decades of deep, enduring love for it. That kind of love comes not from any of those things about it that are objectively great, but from what it gave me, in 40 minutes, on a Sunday afternoon in the autumn of 1999, by the Bristol downs.

II

The Avon Gorge is quite a sight from the Clifton Suspension Bridge. It’s big enough to give you sense of your own frailty – like a gust of wind could whip you off into an expanse of warm air, and on out to the sea.

I had walked out of the flat I was renting, the album on my headphones as I went, and headed for the bridge. A short uphill to get there, where the trees open out into a massive concrete promontory. Then only the girders and wires to hold you. The music was loud, its beats cracking my pace over the narrow metal footpath.

That last year had felt hard. Things seemed like a dead end there. My American girlfriend’s visa was running out soon, and we would go back to our long calls across the ocean. Work was going nowhere, and I hadn’t learned the value of writing to carry me through tough times. What I had was wandering around listening to this starkly angular and boxy music. Rumbling, close in my ears, it didn’t seem enough.

As I looked down into the river’s dirty water in the distance, snatches of the songs started to slot into my mood. “My Beautiful Leah” spat out its plea to fill some bottomless loss. “The Garden” told me about “singing a sad love song… praying for life.” I heard that “Joy”’s eponymous heroine had “never danced a step”, and I was stifled too. This small album of rough cut recordings and I came into dark alignment. The weight of both our pain made the bridge seem to bow a little, and I thought I felt the wind pick up and pull me towards the drop.

III

Don’t panic. I’m here, 2 decades later, to tell this tale. You’ll be relieved to know that as I looked over that edge, my hands locked around the railing until my fingers hurt. It was a grim time certainly, but from that nadir of “Joy”, where the album scrawled it’s vicious beat and I railed against my circumstance with it, came “The River”.

In that first instant it was simply that, slight, “And they came to the river”, breaking my isolation. Then the dancing piano loop struck me, and then the easy drum part, rolling onwards as the song built.

Epiphany is an easy term. Throw it in when you want to stress that something important occured to you. But it was epiphany that carried me from the music’s harsh peaks and troughs, now so close, out over the water. I thought about how much time I had to come, and the joy in how little I could know of it. As Harvey’s white light scattered, I revelled in leaving, in keeping my eyes open as images flooded past them.

So I didn’t jump, I leapt. I fell into my future with Jill as Polly Harvey instructed us to “walk through this land without words, and call it our home”. A moment that wouldn’t last forever. I walked quickly back to the flat, and asked Jill to marry me.

Words by Nick Parker.

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