Skip to content

Things To Do Instead of Smoking, Part 1

Consider how this PJ Harvey song stands in response to this poem by D.H. Lawrence. Look, here’s a YouTube clip so that you can listen to it from this page:

(I tried to find a live performance, but no luck. There is a clip of a woman singing it to her baby! EMBARRASSING.)

Anyway, here’s DH, in part:

When Eve once knew in her mind that she was naked
She quickly sewed fig-leaves, and sewed the same for the man.
She’d been naked all her days before,
But till then, till that apple of knowledge, she hadn’t had the fact on her mind.

She got the fact on her mind, and quickly sewed fig leaves.
And women have been sewing ever since.
But now they stitch to adorn the bursten fig, not to cover it.
They have their nakedness more than ever on their mind,
And they won’t let us forget it.

Now, the secret
Becomes an affirmation through moist, scarlet lips
That laugh at the Lord’s indignation.

What then, good Lord! cry the women.
We have kept our secret long enough.
We are a ripe fig.
Let us burst into affirmation.

They forget, ripe figs won’t keep.
Ripe figs won’t keep.
Honey-white figs of the north, black figs with scarlet inside, of the south.
Ripe figs won’t keep, won’t keep in any clime.
What then, when women the world over have all bursten into self-assurance?
And bursten figs won’t keep?

One thing to love about PJ is how well-read she is, and how little she flaunts that. I’ve heard bands called “literate” simply because they have wordy lyrics, or cite authors by name; PJ, on the other hand, is literate – smart enough to base a song around this poem, for example, or to quote David Mamet and Flannery O’Connor in her lyrics – but in an unassuming, unpretentious sort of way. She puts in the references (high or low, trendy or not) and lets her listeners do the work. She knows what a Sheela Na Gig is, but she’s also seen South Pacific and Carrie, and can touch on all three in the space of one song. So, the songs themselves tend to expand and take on new meanings over time, as you become familiar with her reference points.

Another thing to love about her is how she plays with gender. She tends to write songs around extreme, archetypal characters – the macho, violent gender-fuckers in songs like 50 ft. Queenie (“you bend over, Casanova”) are balanced out by the whimperingly passive, victimized women in songs like Hook (“my love made me gag, call him Daddy”). This song is trickier. DH has a pretty basic point: women need to stop their yapping if they know what’s good for them. PJ’s take on it, though, is nearly impossible to get a bead on. She’s dancing back and forth, agreeing and contradicting, subverting and supporting. It’s a song about ambivalence: opening herself up is going to make her happy, but it’s also going to cause some bloodshed. There’s no clear resolution.

Oh, hey! Did I mention that she also wrote a song about dumping a dude because he won’t put out? Well, she did! Here it is:

Bursten into self-assurance, indeed.