Wednesday, February 24, 2010

February 24: PJ Harvey, "Down By The Water"

Artist: PJ Harvey
Song: "Down By The Water"
Album: To Bring You My Love
Year: 1995

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Though writing a great song is without question one of the most difficult tasks in any type of creative endeavor, one can make the case that creating an authentic and consistent mood throughout the song is even more of a challenge. In a majority of cases, an artist either completely ignores the need for a "mood" and "just plays the song," or they go too far, and the song becomes cliché. This is perhaps no more apparent than in the music of the countless bands that attempt to create "dark" or melancholy moods, as most of them simply end up coming off as little more than posers. Standing in opposition to this trend, few artists in history have delivered as consistent and as deep a mood in their music then one will find in the catalog of the unmistakable Polly Jean Harvey. With a string of uniquely artistic records throughout the 1990's, PJ Harvey had a sound like no other singer-songwriter of the era, and her approach often sounded like a strange mixture of The Pixies and Nick Cave, with Patti Smith style vocals. Though her sophomore record, Rid Of Me, remains one of the most amazing albums ever recorded, it was her follow-up, 1995's To Bring You My Love that brought PJ Harvey greater commercial success. Creating amazing musical textures and dark, menacing moods, there are few albums that can compare to To Bring You My Love, and few songs that so perfectly capture the essence of atmosphere than the surprise hit single, "Down By The Water."

Without question, the most significant change from her previous albums is that on To Bring You My Love, PJ Harvey ditches her band, and recruits new performers, allowing her to fuly explore the heavier, more experimental side of her music. Helping this effort, the albums' primary producer is the man known as "Flood," perhaps best known for his work with the likes of Nine Inch Nails, Smashing Pumpkins, and Depeche Mode among many others. This combination enabled the album to become one of the most unique in music history, and it received massive, widespread accolades, including a pair of Grammy nominations. This is not all that surprising, as the music is some of the most musically adventurous in years, and it is often the subtle musical additions that make the songs truly amazing. This is especially true on "Down By The Water," where Harvey and her band create one of the most wonderfully moody works ever, centered around the distorted bass guitar of Bad Seeds alum, Mick Harvey (no relation.) Working with a simple, primitive rhythm, punctuated by a shaker, the song is immediately dark and continues to emit the feeling of a murky, black body of water as the songs' setting. The low, almost eerie strings that move in and out of the song are a perfect compliment in terms of mood, and the lone plucking that occurs during the verses remains one of the most fantastic "light touches" ever recorded. Rarely in history has a musical arrangement so perfectly captured the essence of a song as brilliantly as it does on "Down By The Water."

While the music is truly extraordinary, it is unquestionably the vocal work of PJ Harvey that turn this song into a classic moment in music history. On her first two records, she had proved that her vocal range knew no limits, yet it is on songs like "Down By The Water" that Harvey shows her amazing sense of drama, as she quickly changes from powerful singing to light whispers. Regardless of "how" she is singing, the fact of the matter is, PJ Harvey's voice is completely entrancing, and once you hear it, "Down By The Water" is a song one can never forget. The final piece to what is truly a perfect song is the brilliant lyrics which PJ Harvey brings to "Down By The Water." Though one might initially be turned off my a song which has a central theme of infanticide, one cannot deny that the song is completely mesmerizing, and this is solidified by the fact that it rose all the way to the second spot on the "Billboard Modern Rock" charts. Easily one of the most outright disturbing lyrics ever penned, Harvey somehow spins the song to a point where this dark theme is almost secondary to the rest of the song. Yet one other fact that is proved on "Down By The Water" is that PJ Harvey is exceptionally well versed in music history. Though it is lost on an overwhelming majority of listeners, the fact of the matter is, the songs' hook of "Little fish, big fish, swimming in the water...come back here man, give me my daughter..." is lifted almost verbatim from blues legend, Leadbelly's song, "Salty Dog." With one of the most mesmerizing vocals ever recorded, PJ Harvey proves that performance can overshadow subject matter and it is surely one of the keys to the success of "Down By The Water."

In an era when the "goth" movement was already in full swing within music, creating dark, moody music without "going goth" was easily one of the most difficult tasks imaginable. At the time, any artist who injected even the smallest sense of drama or evil into their music was almost immediately lumped into this category, yet in a large number of cases, such comparisons were outright wrong. Having already made a name for herself with her first two records, PJ Harvey put together a new band and released one of the most amazing records in every aspect with her 1995 album, To Bring You My Love. Overflowing with perfectly executed, somber yet up-tempo songs, there was simply nothing like the sound that had ever been heard, and few records since even come close to this effort. The partnering of Harvey with Flood yielded amazingly vivid and well-rounded musical textures, and having a new band behind her, Harvey clearly felt free to push the music in any direction she pleased. Everything that makes this album so fantastic is summed up in the single, "Down By The Water," and the song remains one of the finest in history well over a decade after it was first released. From the murky imagery to Harvey's stunning singing to the unsettling lyrical premise, few songs in history are as "complete" as this, and one simply cannot deny the impact and musical genius of PJ Harvey's 1995 masterpiece, "Down By The Water."

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