PJ Harvey‘s The Wind (from her excellent Is This Desire? LP) has been, to use a pun, blowing the cobwebs off my speakers for the past few days. For such a slight ‘n skinny woman, PJ’s tune packs more muscle than it has any right to. It‘s her Barry Adamson moment; filmic, bass-heavy and full of brooding menace.
PJ Harvey – The Wind
It fades in on a ripple of marimba and a stutter of just-plugged-in guitar, with PJ’s vocal quickly taking centrestage. Whisper-in-your-ear sultriness one moment, understated falsetto the next, it tells the story of St Catherine of Abbotsbury who built a chapel high on a hill.
It’s a real chapel, still there to this day and located in the village of Abbotsbury where PJ lives, or indeed lived at the time of writing the song (as much as I’m a fan, it wouldn’t be the done thing to go around the more rural parts of Dorset in the hope of bumping into her in the dairy aisle of the local Waitrose. Really, I have no idea where she lives. A fancy flat in London with a weekend retreat in the Cotswolds? I dunno.)
Anyway, The Wind tells a straightforward story. No coded lyrics, no double meaning. Just a good, honest folk song about religion and singing.
Catherine liked high places
High up, high up on the hills
A place for making noises
Noises like the whales
Here she built a chapel
With her image
An image on the wall
A place where she could rest and rest
And a place where she could wash
And listen to the wind blowing
The whole track is carried along by the bassline. When it comes in, after that second ‘noises like the whales’ line, it brings to mind some New York street punk, hands deep in the pockets of his leather bomber jacket, docker’s hat pulled hard and low over his forehead, eyes shifting from left to right and back again, looking to start trouble, looking to avoid trouble, but, looking for trouble.
It’s produced masterfully by Flood who brings an electro wash to the finished result. In fact, it wouldn’t sound out of place on any given recording by Harvey’s fellow West Country contemporaries Tricky and Massive Attack. There’s subtle tingaling percussion, quietly scraping cello and layers of synthetic noise. When the vocals begin their counter-melodies in the chorus, it’s pure Bjork.
As a single, The Wind barely bothered the charts (number 29) before dropping off the face of the planet forever. In fact, without the aid of that there Wikipedia, I’d never have known it was ever a single to begin with. When it was released (1999), I don’t ever recall Our Price stocking it, and I was the singles buyer for my branch at the time. I ain’t no expert, but I thought I’d have known about it.
It does though live on forever on Is This Desire?, a high point in a back catalogue packed full of outstanding highs. It’s incredible to think that PJ Harvey has been making records for nigh on a quarter of a century. From the lo-fi scuz of Dry via the Patti Smith-isms of Stories From The City, Stories From The Sea and the stark, piano-only White Chalk right up to her most recent collection of WW1-themed songs on Let England Shake (not forgettting the one-off single in support of Guantanamo Bay prisoner Shaker Aamer), she’s one of our most consistent musicians. Daring, unpredictable and true to herself, she’s right up there with the best of ’em.
Excitingly, she has a new LP in the offing. April, I believe. The first fruits are spinning heavily on BBC 6Music every day just now, and they’re sounding terrific. But you knew that already.