After producing one of the best three-album arcs in rock history (Dry, Rid of Me, To Bring You My Love, as if it even needs to be stated), PJ Harvey took a step back to work on Dance Hall at Louse Point, a collaborative album with John Parish.
On Dance Hall, Parish wrote the music, and Harvey wrote the words. It was a different kind of project for her, but not that different. She had been in Parish’s band Automatic Diamini, and he’d both played on and co-produced To Bring You My Love. There are still lots of lyrics about love gone wrong and the residue of blues around the guitar chords, though both musicians got a little arty and experimental about it. In retrospect, it feels a lot like a stepping-stone between her third and fourth albums, albeit one where she had to sort of take a running leap from rock to rock.
Critics did not see it this way. Critics were mainly confused. PJ Harvey wasn’t supposed to be a person with artistic interests. She was supposed to be a legend, a larger-than-life folk tale, Polly Jean d’Arc. Who was this Parish guy, and why was he trying to fix something that wasn’t broke?
“Everybody loves PJ Harvey…but they’ll have trouble getting a read on this side project,” wrote The AV Club, upset that “Parish gets top billing over the reason people will buy Dance Hall at Louse Point” when “Harvey was meant to control her own show.”
“I wish that Harvey would just pick up her guitar and form a new band,” Rolling Stone sighed.
But Harvey saw it as “an enormous turning point” in her approach to songwriting, and went on to work with Parish for several more albums, including a second music-by-him, words-by-her collaboration. So perhaps she didn’t feel she “gave up control of the music,” as one critic put it, so much as that she got to explore something new with someone whose work she admired and trusted.
But this one song “Taut”? Is completely bonkers.
Like I said, this album isn’t radically different from Harvey’s other work, and though this song requires a sonic double-take, it’s almost because it’s so PJ, as if someone boiled down her first three albums into their most basic essence and then lit the pot on fire.
Yes, there’s a lot of scary tuneless whispering, but there’s also that parched shriek she used on Rid of Me, and the religious imagery from To Bring You My Love. She even seems to be reusing a character from TBYML’s “C’mon Billy.” To be fair, it’s entirely possible that there’s more than one man named Billy in the world who owns a car, but assuming it’s the same Billy who left the first song’s narrator with a son he never met, this song is a deliciously creepy prequel.
“It all started,” we find out, “when he bought that car” (“the first thing he’d ever owned apart from me.”) In “C’mon Billy,” the car is mentioned because “we lay in it for days,” but in “Taut,” we learn the situation was a little more intense than that, because Billy used to lock the song’s narrator up in the back seat and “make me pray, wearing a mask like a death’s head.”
And I would do anything for him
It just wasn’t enough
It was never enough
He’d turn to me and say
He’d, he’d say, “Even the son of God had to die, my darling”
If you buy that it’s the same Billy, and that this same narrator begs him to “come home / to your son” because “you know I’m waiting / I love you endlessly,” the narrative arc between the two songs becomes chilling and complex and kind of literary.
None of which makes it any easier to digest for critics or even for PJ Harvey fans, who generally pay little attention to her duet albums with Parish. On that note, here’s a video of “Taut” at a German music festival in 2004. You can’t really dance to it, and you can’t really sing along to it, so the audience resorts to just sort of waving their arms around, baffled and awkward. But as a performance, it’s unhinged and so so good, even if most of the people listening can’t quite tell.