Friday, 16 October 2015

Oliver: PJ Harvey - Oh My Lover/Victory/Sheela-Na-Gig [Peel Session] (29 December 1991)








"[Someone] of Leeds went so far as to send me an illustration of a Sheela-na-Gig, and frankly, I was appalled." - John Peel, 17 November 1991.

If Hole and Silverfish represent the blowtorch and pliers, then PJ Harvey is the salve to rub on the wounds.  After all what does her opening delivery on Oh My Lover suggest, if not the image of her smoothing the fevered brow of someone who has been chased across hill and dale by an enraged Courtney Love and Lesley Rankine.  I'm sure the little hiccup of uncertainty on her "all right" doesn't
portend anything to worry about, does it?  Surely not, she's even giving licence for her lover to keep both her and her rival going at the same time.  She'll always put herself out for the one she loves, will Polly Jean.

In trying to gather his early thoughts of Harvey together, Peel wrote perceptively of her that she seemed "crushed by the weight of her own songs and arrangements". Certainly Oh My Lover and Dress are bonded by the desperate need to pacify and interest others, either by dressing provocatively or by giving them total freedom to do what they want.  It's a submissive stance which could have been horribly misjudged were it not for the fact that Harvey, even at her most pleading and desperate, had amidst her fragility, a sliver of steel running through her which meant that you could see her turning the tables on the faithless, feckless, lucky bastards that were playing her for a soft touch.

That is precisely what happens in the other two tracks I would have taped from this session.  After lying prostate at her lover's whims in Oh My Lover, she's now mocking his prudishness when he refuses to be seduced by her "child-bearing hips" and "pillows" in Sheela-Na-Gig.  The object of her affection/derision is repulsed by her naked body and efforts to seduce him, as though she shoved the most prominent feature of a Sheela-Na-Gig into the poor man's mouth.  But it's his loss as she resolves to wash that man right out of her hair in an earthy update of the South Pacific standard.  It would go on to be a single in 1992 and remains a signature tune of Polly Jean's.

My favourite of the three tracks here is Victory, a muscular rocker that could almost be set the morning after the night before the other two tracks.  "Storm is gone and the temperature's high".  There's a wonderful, celebratory atmosphere in this track as she starts partying with the angels, God and those men who want to get right into her Sheela-Na-Gig, before setting sail in Victory and conjuring an atmosphere every bit as raucous as that which Nelson would have indulged on his ship of the same name.

I only heard three of the four tracks on the recording, which suits me fine as the fourth, Water, would have been a borderline inclusion.  Quite serviceable but sounding too much like a piece of tepid surf rock to my tin ears.  No matter, I'm content to get high on the three pieces of "Grade A stuff" as Peel described the session which Harvey, Rob Ellis and Stephen Vaughan cooked up in Maida Vale.  An epoch defining set and Harvey included it in full when she curated the best of her Peel Sessions in 2006.

Videos courtesy of #pjharvey.

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