Emily Berry on To Bring You My Love by PJ Harvey: “It speaks to your shipwrecked feelings”

From the Long Players series: writers on their most cherished albums.

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I first saw PJ Harvey performing in 1996 in the LA2 in central London, a venue that is now a ghost of polluted air hovering above a building site on Charing Cross Road. She was wearing a bright yellow jumpsuit and made that outfit live up to its name by springing about all over the stage like a cricket who had taken on the form of a divine woman. Sometime before that I’d bought a second-hand copy of To Bring You My Love on CD; it had a luxurious matt inlay sleeve depicting Harvey drowning like Ophelia in the Millais painting. Her songs were so furious and bereft they immediately reached inside me and coloured all my loneliest parts red: “I was born in the desert…” Caught between deserts and floods, her music seemed not only to understand life’s emergency but to be powered by it.

I turned 15 in 1996, and a teenager is in need of a war cry even if they don’t know yet what their particular war will be. I had begun to suspect that heartbreak was in some ways a permanent condition, and if it was, how much better if that agony could be made gorgeous and baroque. For a long time I thought the lyric “cursed God above” in the title song was invoking the “coastguard above”, which seems fitting for an album that speaks to your most shipwrecked feelings; though if the god in To Bring You My Love is a coastguard, he’s an unusually sadistic one, with little concern for whether his charges are waving or drowning. The poet Mary Ruefle declared that a poem “is supposed to be preparing me for my death”; I think the same goes for songs. “Jesus, come closer/I think my time is near…”

All those evenings spent listening to To Bring You My Love in my bedroom took me to the edge of something, and this must be how it gave me – as the kids say these days – so much life. 

This article appears in the 07 December 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Christmas special