Single Review: PJ Harvey “Down By The Water”

Down By The Water
Album: To Bring You My Love
Year: 1995

Nine years later and “Down By The Water” still gives me shivers. Hearing this at about fifteen years old on the radio did two things to me: 1) set higher standards for rock musicians and female singers alike. I find current rock music to be empty and free of any intellectualism which still seemed to be around when I was younger. Being exposed to PJ Harvey, Bjork, Weezer, Radiohead, and Beck at a time when they considered to be marketable has made me less gullible to the marketing of music now. 2) It’s more than “life sucks.” For me, “Down By the Water” addresses the issue of abortion. Most importantly, it made me think about and question things beyond pop culture. In this conservative kind of world, people are stuck with hearing crap like Bowling for Soup and the Darkness, which doesn’t address much of anything. Unfortunately, if “Down By The Water” was heard consistently on the radio now, Bill O’Reilly would be calling for Harvey’s head. And the public would gladly serve it to him.

A sullen Harvey begins, “I lost my heart/under the bridge/to that little girl/so much to me.” In my intrepretation, she seems to be viewing the daughter she would have had in the water as she looks to it. However, it appears that her abortion is troubling her as she second guesses her decision (“now I holler/now I moan.” She sings that her daughter will never know her realization, but that she couldn’t keep her to at all. But now she feels that she is a horrible person for having the abortion (“that blue eyed girl said ‘no more’/that blue eyed girl became blue eyed whore.” As for calling herself ‘blue-eyed’ she suggests that she was naive about the issue and what it would involve. She reveals that a part of her is now missing “down by the water.” In this part, her naive self becomes real, as she sings that she brought that part of herself with her along with her aborted daughter in hopes of being able to be that naive and young again. (“down by the water/I took her hand/just like my daughter/see her again.”

In the second verse, she asks for spiritual guidance and forgiveness (“oh help me Jesus/come through this storm/I had to lose her/did do her harm”) and that inside her, she felt her daughter’s death (“I heard her holler/I heard her moan/my lovely daughter/I took her home”). In the end, she demands that the fish in the water to give her daughter, although it is only a figment of her imagination that she is seeing (“big fish/little fish, swimming in the water/come back here and give me my daughter”).

Harvey is regretful, desperate and at the end, overcome with grief at her loss. The music is tense and ominous. She has a sound resembling a chainsaw that goes throughout the first verse, setting up the horrific fairy tale and her inevitable descent into madness. The music remains cautious and calm between the first and second verse, hinting towards hope. However, it’s soon lost with the feedback wailing silently in the background. In the second verse, the music is full of panic and fear as the pauses are highlighted with two strokes from the keyboard. By the end, the music is peaceful, but still omnious, as though to symbolize she has found some solace.

Her songwriting invokes Angela Carter’s “In the Company of Wolves,” a retelling of “Little Red Riding Hood.” Rosaleen, who like Harvey in the single, loses her innoence to a wolf, knowing it’s something she must do to survive. Both stories are tragic and well worth a look.

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