If you had to match PJ Harvey with any author, living or dead, Flannery O’Connor would be a pretty solid choice. Both are idiosyncratic women who forged careers in male-dominated fields. Both take very seriously the spiritual suffering of their characters, and both write exquisite descriptions of physical violence as a metaphor for emotional violence. Plus PJ has all that blues influence going on, which jibes well with O’Connor’s Southern-ness. So it’s perfectly fitting that Harvey drew inspiration from O’Connor for more than one song on Is This Desire?, the same album on which she alludes to folk tales about St. Catherine and short stories by J. D. Salinger.
In a previous PJHT, I wrote about the ITD? track “A Perfect Day Elise” and its basis in Salinger’s “A Perfect Day for Bananafish.” The relationship between the two works is a loose one. Harvey snips images and phrases from the story but pastes them into a rather different-looking collage: a little girl becomes an adult woman and romantic interest, a suicide is caused by her rejection rather than combat-related PTSD, and so forth.
Harvey’s “Joy,” on the other hand, deals much more directly with its source material, O’Connor’s classic story “Good Country People” [PDF].
If you haven’t already read it, shame on you, and your penance is that I’m going to spoil the plot for you right now. The story follows Joy Hopewell—or, as she’s renamed herself, Hulga—a thirty-year-old philosophy PhD with a wooden leg and a life-threatening heart condition. Because of her health problems, she’s never had a social life, and still lives with her mother in a state of mutual condescension. One day, a Bible salesman comes along who convinces everyone he’s “good country people”—but then, under the pretense of falling in love with Joy/Hulga, steals her wooden leg and leaves her stranded in the loft of an old barn.
If “A Perfect Day Elise” sketched some curlicues branching off the story it was based on, “Joy” just goes ahead and dumps the inkwell on the page. It chokes through O’Connor’s bleakest lines (“never danced a step,” “hollow sky,” “I’ve been believing in nothing since I was born”) and washes them down with even bleaker ones of its own invention (“no hope for joy,” “she wanted to go blind, wanted hope to stay”). It’s so aggressively ugly and repetitive with its stereo-curdling bass that I have a feeling O’Connor would have a hard time even recognizing it as music.
NME panned the album when it was released, calling it “brutal” and “unpalatable,” and singling “Joy” out as “an almost impenetrable mix of slowed beats and screeched vocals.” But here’s what PJ had to say in 2004, with six years of hindsight: “It was a very, very difficult, difficult record to make and still one I find very difficult to listen to, but probably my favorite record that I’ve made because it had a lot of guts.”
Why was it so difficult to make and to revisit? The most common assumption among both fans and the press has been that it was a sort of “breakup album” after her short but intense relationship with Nick Cave fell apart. Certainly that’s what Nick Cave was doing with his subsequent album The Boatman’s Call. “West Country Girl” couldn’t be about anyone but Polly, and “Into My Arms” might very well be too. (Sidenote: Those lyrics about believing in an interventionist God fit right into a column about tortured Catholic Flannery O’Connor!)
Because Harvey uses fictional characters and scenarios in her songs, particularly on Is This Desire?, you’re not going to find any autobiographical lyrics as thinly veiled as Cave’s. Rolling Stone and NME declared with equal confidence that Harvey was responding to Boatman and that she wasn’t. It’s undebatable that “Good Country People” is about a man who swoops into a woman’s life, tells her he loves her, then steals her leg. Whether Harvey pictured Cave escaping down the ladder with a wooden limb in his suitcase full of Bibles and liquor is, of course, impossible to say.
If you agree with the NME reviewer’s unfavorable estimation of “Joy,” you should know there’s another arrangement of it that Harvey uses for live performances. It subs out the grinding industrial distortion for blues guitar, and though it’s easier to listen to and more melodic, it might sound a little too optimistic for a song about having no hope.