PJ Harvey Tuesday #1: “Henry Lee”


Now that Nick Cave Mondays have drawn to a close, the obvious next step is PJ Harvey Tuesdays. The two were musical collaborators and lovers for a short but memorable time, and both have built extensive careers by reinventing their sound over and over. Both melt down elements of blues and folk and then hammer the alloy into the fiercest, shiniest swords you’ve ever seen. Harvey even continues to work often with Bad Seed and Birthday Party band member Mick Harvey (who, though they share a last name, is not related to her).

And what better way to bridge two series about Nick and Polly Jean than with their (in)famous duet “Henry Lee,” from Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds’ Murder Ballads? The able Tony DuShane paid it tribute in Nick Cave Monday #20, but it’s worth a second look from PJ’s perspective.

A song with its roots in eighteenth-century Scotland, “Henry Lee” tells the quintessential love story: Boy meets girl. Boy tells girl he likes another girl better. Girl stabs boy with a penknife and throws his body down a well.

In the video, Cave and Harvey are styled to look exactly like each other, as if they were matched at an elemental level—and in many senses, they were. If Cave wanted to make an album about murder ballads, he couldn’t have picked a better duet partner than Harvey, with her lyrics about drowning children and cutting off lovers’ legs so they can’t walk away. Although “Henry Lee” is a song with centuries of folk history, it sounds like she could have written it herself, especially when she slips that “damn” into the first verse.

It’s a compelling video on its own—Tony DuShane said it fogged up his glasses it was so steamy—but what makes it downright hair-raising is that Cave and Harvey weren’t yet dating and in fact barely knew each other when they made it. It was filmed in one take without any choreography or planning. Those longing caresses, that air of injured familiarity—that all just…happened.

“So you were beginning the relationship in this three-minute video?” a Guardian interviewer once asked Cave.

“Yeah, exactly,” he replied.

Somehow, without knowing it or meaning to, Cave and Harvey presaged their entire time together in fewer than five minutes in front of a camera. With uncomfortable intensity, as awkward as they are eager, they seem to cling to each other for comfort even as the characters they’re playing discard and murder one another. And all of us at home just stare as the wounds open up on their hearts.

But soul mates who come together under the auspices of a ballad about doomed love can only stay together for as long as it takes one to plug the other with a penknife. Within about a year, the pair had split, an event which inspired much of The Boatman’s Call, Cave’s most anguished and deeply personal album. Several of its songs are directly and obviously about Harvey, including “Black Hair,” “Green Eyes,” “West Country Girl” (Nick Cave Monday #32), and quite possibly “Into My Arms,” which Tony DuShane called “the greatest love song ever written” in Nick Cave Monday #8.

As for Harvey, her personal life remains mostly mysterious, and her lyrics are usually from a character’s point of view, not her own. Her post-Cave-breakup album, Is This Desire?, is melancholy but largely ambivalent on the subject of romance, as you might guess from the title. Don’t worry, though: even if they’re not about our favorite Australian iconoclast, there are plenty of blistering love-gone-wrong laments in Harvey’s oeuvre. More on that in the next PJ Harvey Tuesday.

Lauren O'Neal is an MFA student at San Francisco State University. Her writing has appeared in publications like Slate, The New Inquiry, and The Hairpin. You can follow her on Twitter at @laureneoneal. More from this author →