Meet Ze Monsta | Pj Harvey’s 1995 Release Brings Stellar Theatrics to Her Dark and Brooding Bluesy Sound.
PJ Harvey is always one to test new ground in her artistry. By the end of her tour cycle for 1993’s Rid of Me, she had broken away from her band and began to work alongside long-time collaborator John Parish on her next project.
Few would expect the direction she would take following her prior stripped-down and raw Steve Albini album. What would come is a Polly Jean ready for the stage in what she would coin her Joan Crawford on acid cosmetics and various dresses and catsuits.
All this would be juxtaposed against a thick, brooding soundtrack of longing, darkness, and biblical allusions. Harvey has stated she had been reading biblical materials to prepare for the project.
It may not sound like it makes sense, but trust me, it all comes together fabulously.
The album opens on the titular track, “To Bring You My Love.” The slow fade-in of Harvey’s guitar draws us into this barren landscape of need. It’s dark and sparsely populated. This slowly breaks as more percussion, guitar, and organ work come into view. Harvey’s guttural lower register sucks the moisture from the air as she displays all the torturous ways she’s attempted to show love to this man, “And I’ve traveled over/ Dry earth and floods/ Hell and high water/ To bring you my love.” She also gives her first biblical allusion to the fall of Lucifer in the second verse, “Cast out off heaven/ Cast down on my knees/ I’ve lain with the devil/ Cursed god above/ Forsaken heaven/ To bring you my love.”
We only get a brief reprieve on the bridge as the guitars lull, and Harvey’s vocals momentarily soften at the promise of this man being there when all this is through. It’s a very effective soundscape. We never truly get a resolution. It only fades out as the guitar mirrors the organ melody into nothingness.
“Meet the Monsta” comes from the Captain Beefheart song “Tropical Hot Dog Night.” Here is where the grit really comes in. The guitars overtake you like overgrowth through their fuzzy overdriven sound. Harvey lets down her hair to go wild. She stands resolute, almost excited, to take on the beast of man, “What a monster/ What a night/ What a lover/ What a fight.” Each chorus builds upon her energy until she releases a scream at the end of the second and final choruses. The addition of Harvey’s whistle also calls you to attention. It’s raucous and wild. I always find myself just losing it to the song in the best way possible.
One of the more subtle pieces on the album is the ominously brooding “Working for the Man.” Harvey’s organ gives off a nocturnal feeling against the forward momentum of the percussion. You get the tale of a man on the prowl, “Pretty things get in my car/ Take them flying, it’s not far/ Take ’em handsome, take ’em mean/ Look good in my steel machine.” Polly’s adlibbed vocals and Gore’s guitar work make for a sense of dark amorous emotions.
We continue with the religious undertones, “In the night, I look for love/ Get my strength from the man above/ God of piston, god of steel/ God is here behind my wheel,” but turn them on their side as we get this God complex from our sense of worth and power.
Polly takes a bit more of a western/Spanish turn on “C’mon Billy.” Again, the themes of yearning and despondence seep thickly. Parish’s acoustic guitar work brings to mind a desert landscape, while Harvey’s organ and the accompanying string work bring lush drama to the song.
Much like the music video displays, the woman here grabs you by the arms to pull you back in. The woman here is desperate to bring this man back into her and her son’s life, “‘Come home’/ Is my plea/ Your home now is/ Here with me/ Come home/ To your son/ Tomorrow might/ Never come.” The lines, “I had your son/ Damn thing went crazy,” are a sort of call back to Leadbelly’s “Black Betty.”
“Teclo” got its inspiration from the soundtrack to The Guns of Saint Sebastian:
“I’ve got a record at home, Ennio Morricone, and there’s a song on there called ‘Teclo’s Death’. And I thought, ‘That sounds interesting,’ and it’s just percussion, there’s nothing else. There’s no instruments, and I just found it very intriguing as a title and after I listened to that album it kind of sparked off so many ideas around that song for me, that that’s what went into writing the music.”
Harvey does most of the instrumentation on the track (guitar, chimes, cowbell, piano, and organ). She crafts this wistful desolate landscape through her sonic construction. This builds this covetous desire to pull him back from death, “Long goes the night/ Longer the day/ Teclo, your death/ Will send me to my grave.”
Again, we see the theme of religion as an outlet for quelling her craving for love, “I learned to beg/ I learned to pray/ Send me his love/ Send him to me again.” The dark, languorous mood gets a reprieve from the song's chorus. Even in these moments, it feels like a delirious daydream.
“Long Snake Moan” takes the cake for the heaviest track on the album. The ferocious guitar and bass, coupled with the crack of a bullwhip aside the percussion, make for a scene of devouring lust.
As the title suggests, we’re brimming with sexual energy. Harvey's commanding performance seeks to gain power through this encounter, “Dunk you under/ Deep salt water/ Bring me, lover/ All your power.” We get the allusion to Lazarus being brought back to life by Jesus, “Raise me up, lord/ Call me Lazarus/ Hey lord, heal me/ Make ready my veil.” She seeks to bring life back into herself through this sexual encounter. Yet another reference is present here; this time to Charles Sheffield’s “It’s Your Voodoo Working.” It’s one of the most evocative songs on the album.
By far one of Harvey’s most recognizable tracks is the distinctly malevolent “Down By the Water.” Its accompanying video echoes the song's lines and provides the album's artwork.
The song takes some inspiration from Lead Belly’s take on the traditional folk song “Salty Dog Blues” (“Little fish big fish swimming in the water…”). The song details the sense of drowning one’s daughter under the bridge, “Down by the water/ I took her hand/ Just like my daughter/ Won’t see her again.” At the same point, I get a sense of the loss of innocence from this song. The death of this woman’s innocence, be it by the brutality of a man, “That blue-eyed girl/ She said, ‘No more.’/ And that blue-eyed girl/ Became blue-eyed whore.”
Either way, it makes for one of the best dark blues tracks on her record and a notable staple in her catalog.
The second of the more understated songs on the album is the moody blues of “I Think I’m a Mother.” The guitar and organ really lay the foundation for the song. I definitely hear the Delta blues inspiration. As the title says, Polly asks for this man to stay with her and support her as she thinks she may be pregnant. Instead, she’s left on her own in the end, “I love her, I kept her/ And then she just left and/ Alone, I implore ya/ I think I’m a mother.”
With how low the register of Harvey’s vocals and all the instrumentation are, it really adds to the overall sinister feeling. She ends out the song needing her own mother like when she was a child, “Need you mother/ More than ever/ Need you mother.”
This is a song I have never quite personally connected with but also won’t skip if I am listening to the album from front to back.
The album ends off with two songs of a western/Spanish flavor. The first of these is “Send His Love to Me.” We have come to dire need as Harvey’s character can no longer bear the separation from her lover. She’s gone from mourning his loss into anger over his tether over her. Some of my favorite lines from the track come from the song’s fourth verse, “How long must I suffer?/ Dear God, I’ve served my time/ This love becomes my torture/ This love, my only crime/ Oh, lover, please release me/ My arms too weak to grip/ My eyes too dry for weeping/ My lips too dry to kiss.” It’s an extremely evocative look at just how broken she has become surrounding his absence.
All this against strings, marimba, Hammond organ, and a Spanish-inspired guitar line really brings the drama beautifully. The video to the song perfectly matches this drought-like thirst for love she’s tapped into.
“The Dancer” ends with our most flamingo-spiced track. Parish’s guitar work is absolutely fantastic. We end the album similarly to how we started, with a covetous need for love.
In a sense, we get a sort of inverted look at Genesis with Harvey begging God for a male companion that is delivered upon her, “He came riding fast like a phoenix out of fire flames/ He came dressed in black with a cross bearing my name/ He came bathed in light and splendor and glory/ I can’t believe what the lord has finally sent me.” This displays Polly’s character’s isolation and loneliness as she returns to full color from her withered state.
This emotional state is fleeting as it is a flashback of better times before he deserted her. Harvey does an immaculate job at playing the sort of 40s-esque woman in wanting. Both sonically and lyrically, the song comes off as cinematic.
It’s a great way to close out the album.
I think you’d be hard-pressed not to be engrossed in the sonic world and narrative Harvey has put on display. There’s a reason it was nominated for a Grammy and a Mercury Prize in 1995. She’s expertly tapped into something campy yet serious (hence the Joan Crawford on acid look). You’ll ache alongside her through these passionate forlorn love and isolation displays.
“Down By the Water” will surely bring chills down your spine. After hearing the record, it is no wonder Nick Cave and her would work together on Murder Ballads. Where his prior works blended her aptitude for blues with alternative rock, To Bring You My Love bathes in it.
Not only is it a stand out record in a time of heavy alternative rock radio play, but also a gem among her many glorious albums in her discography. I highly recommend you give this album a listen from front to back. I don’t think you’ll be sorry. My favorites:
- “Meet Ze Monsta”
- “C’mon Billy”
- “Long Snake Moan”
- “Down By the Water”
- “Send His Love to Me”
- “The Dancer”
My overall rating: 9.5 out of 10.