PJ Harvey Tuesday #6: “The Dancer”


If you’ve only heard one PJ Harvey song, it’s probably “Down by the Water” off her 1995 album To Bring You My Love. A runaway hit that broke the top 50 on UK and US music charts, it epitomized the unique aesthetic direction of third album, which Rolling Stone described as “a towering goth version of grunge.” The video showcased the “Joan Crawford on acid” look she’d come up with for the record’s tour: ball gown, immense wig, false eyelashes, and makeup that looked like it was smeared on with melting crayons.

But we’re not going to talk about “Down by the Water” today. We’re going to talk about a song you’re much less likely to have heard: the last track on the album, the underappreciated “The Dancer.” It has 100% fewer child murders than “Down by the Water” but, to my everlasting anguish, never became a single or a video. (The one below is a fan video set to still pictures of dancers, which gets kind of silly but is at least more interesting than just listening to the song over an image of the album cover.)

No use mincing words here: This song is melodramatic. It has an organ. It has a guitar played with a pastry brush (!) that trembles like your lips when you’re trying not to cry. It starts with the words “He came riding fast like a phoenix out of fire flames / He came dressed in black with a cross bearing my name.”

Just in case anyone was under the impression that the drama of that operatic vibrato wasn’t totally intentional, Harvey references a literal opera, or at least an aria: Francesco Durante’s “Danza, danza fanciulla,” which calls a “fanciulla gentile” (gentle young girl) to dance. Of course, the original aria is playful and sweet, while in Harvey’s version, the gentle young girl is crushed to emotional powder when the man who invited her to “dance for me” departs to “heaven only knows” where. Because we’re listening to PJ Harvey here, and PJ Harvey doesn’t do sweet.

Like most of the songs on the record, “The Dancer” renders the absence of a lover in Biblical terms: “I’ve prayed days, I’ve prayed nights / For the Lord just to send me home some sign.” But it splits off from that goth-version-of-grunge vibe Rolling Stone described in favor of something more like the goth version of a spaghetti Western soundtrack.

It mimics the first and title track in that way—in fact, that’s one of the reasons I think the song is so totally flawless. MP3s and iTunes may have mortally wounded the album as an album, but none of that stuff was around yet in 1995. To Bring You My Love is an album in the traditional sense, and its opening and closing songs mirror each other masterfully. If “To Bring You My Love” sounds like the ten paces that two blues-rock cowboys have to take before they draw their pistols, then “The Dancer” sounds like the desperate last gasps of the one who lost the duel.

That’s probably a fitting final note for a post about such a theatrical song, but before I close, I want to show you all this interview Harvey did on Chicago’s long-running music show JBTV during the tour for this album. The tape has been somewhat degraded by age and it’s really only tangentially related to this post—“The Dancer” is mentioned in part one—but it’s just so weird that the world needs to see it. The show’s host, Jerry Bryant, is characteristically mega-nerdy and seems to have a pretty big crush on Harvey (who wouldn’t?), and it’s really uncomfortable to watch except that I think this is the only interview I’ve seen in which Harvey, who’s normally reserved to the point of coldness, lets her guard down and, somewhat bemusedly, actually starts joking around. Enjoy!

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 →