PJ Harvey Tuesday #16: “Maniac”
This is a continuation of the PJ Harvey Tuesday series started at the Rumpus. You can see the Rumpus installments here and the rest of the Tusk installments here.
Whether you’re a hardcore fan or a casual listener, PJ Harvey B-sides are a special treat. They’re like little time-traveling jewels—a new song to listen to, but, magically, it’s from fifteen years ago! Harvey is so immensely talented that her rejects are just as good as her album tracks. Who else could be so confident in their material that they scrap the title track of the album, as Harvey did on Uh Huh Her?
B-sides from early in her career are collected on two relatively rare compilation albums: Maniac (1991–1995) and Harder (1995–2001). The title track on Maniac was originally released on the “C’mon Billy” single, off 1995’s To Bring You My Love. On TBYML, she abducts her blues influences from the delta and locks them up in a shack somewhere in the middle of the desert. These are the blues of a demonic cowgirl, marked by parched vocals, an organ instead of a bass, and guitar riffs worthy of Captain Beefheart, if Captain Beefheart got bit by a werewolf.
The unifying theme of TBYML is the distant lover, who may or may not ever return, or even want to return. The narrators of these songs recount the tribulations they’ve endured while waiting and obsessively list their paramours’ virtues, which, of course, are always vices. In the title track, the narrator has “lain with the devil / cursed God above / forsaken heaven / to bring you my love.” In another: “I love him longer as each damn day goes / the man is gone and heaven only knows.”
“Maniac” is no different (though its claves and congas do lend it a singular sound). This lover’s “heart is sick, the deepest black,” and she wants him to “take me to the God heights / and kiss the devil on the mouth.” And at the end, when you think she’s spelling out “M-A-N,” she pushes through to “I-A-C.” Whether she’s describing herself or her lover is impossible to say.
What I love about “Maniac” and many of the other songs on TBYML is that the music takes the harshness of distortion and turns it beautiful, and the lyrics take weakness and turn it into strength. The narrators of these songs are abandoned, desperate. They sing, “You know I’m waiting / I love you endlessly” and “Don’t forget me.” They sing, “How long must I suffer? / Dear God, I’ve served my time.” Their anguish is Biblical: “I’m begging, Jesus, please / Send his love to me.”
But they’re also the baddest bitches you ever met, drowning children and facing down monsoons, cursing God and forsaking heaven. They’re monstrously strong because of their pain, not in spite of it, unbreakable because everything about them has already been broken. They’re maniacs, and we love them for it.
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[…] Last PJHT, I wrote about a song from the first of a two-disc compilation of PJ Harvey B-sides, so this time I’m going to take on a track from the second disc, Harder, which brings together B-sides from the years 1995–2001. […]
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