“I look towards religion as possibly one means to finding an answer, to making sense why we’re here. That’s what drives the creative force, to make sense of one’s life. A very natural place to look is in that divine area, because it’s so strong and has been here long before us”.
– PJ Harvey, interviewed by The Atlanta Journal Constitution, 1995.
Whilst often difficult to decipher, made more difficult by the way in which the singer rarely discusses what the lyrics of her songs are about, preferring to leave it to the listener’s own interpretation, the songs of PJ Harvey are brimming with Biblical and Christian imagery. From the outset, this was an artist who either steeped her work in religious imagery or wrote songs which had a distinctly Biblical feel. However, Harvey herself is not a religious person. She never attended church as a child and was never baptised. What we therefore have in Harvey’s songs is a canon of religious offerings by a secular artist.
On PJ Harvey’s debut album Dry, from 1992, we get our first insight into the way in which the artist looks towards religion for answers and inspiration. Take for example, Hair. Hair is based on the Delilah’s betrayal of Samson in the Bible story (Judges 16). In Hair, contrary to the Bible, Delilah cuts off Samson’s hair in order to make him hers, as opposed to through hatred. See, for example, the first verse: “Samson, The strength, That’s in Your Arms, Oh to be, Your Stunning Bride”.
Elsewhere on the Dry album, we find the song Joe, the tale of unrequited love and the loss of that love, based on Harvey’s experience with her first boyfriend Joe Dilworth, then drummer with Th’ Faith Healers and later of Stereolab. It is interesting the way in which Harvey places herself as the fallen woman wishing to be redeemed in many of her songs through the use of Biblical imagery. In Joe, she takes the position of Mary Magdalene: “Come in close now I’ll wash your feet, With my hair I’ll mop them dry”. These lines refer to Luke 7:38: “And standing behind Him at His feet, weeping, she began to wet His feet with her tears and kept wiping them with the hair of her head, and kissing His feet and anointing them with perfume”. Here, we see this incident from the Bible used as a metaphor for PJ Harvey’s outpouring of grief at the breakup of the relationship. In the Bible, Mary Magdalene is a prostitute, a fallen woman who is redeemed by this act. The song Joe sees PJ Harvey longing for her former lover to save her from her despair by staying in her life with graphic images of suicidal thoughts (“Joe you be my buddy please, In This hell and dead-locked time, When I’m trusting that head-ache tree, Cut me down with your silver knife”). Her former lover is seen as a hero figure, the worshipped, just as Jesus was worshipped by Mary Magdalene, whilst Harvey positions herself as Mary Magdalene, similarly wishing to be redeemed and given a second chance.
Taking the position of the fallen woman, often accompanied with religious imagery, is a common theme in Harvey’s work. On Dry we also find PJ Harvey’s breakthrough song, Sheela-Na-Gig. A Sheela-Na-Gig is an ancient early Christian fertility statue displaying an exaggerated vulva. In the song, PJ Harvey takes the idea of the Sheela-Na-Gig in order to paint a graphic picture of a prostitute: “He said Sheela-Na-Gig, you exhibitionist, Put money in your idle hole, He said ‘Wash your breasts, I don’t want to be unclean’, He said, ‘Please take those dirty pillows away from me’”.
When asked the question “Aren’t you a big Bible reader as well?” by Rolling Stone Magazine in 1995, PJ Harvey replied:
“Not every day. I go through phases. I read it as much as I can. There’s just so much in there. I don’t know the answers to anything. Everything is possible as far as I’m concerned, and nothing is impossible. I enjoy reading it for that. It’s, like, if you want to let your imagination run wild, dip into a few Bible stories. It’s pretty amazing stuff. Why take a trip on acid when you can read the Bible?”