Dance Hall At Louse Point is PJ Harvey’s wildcard – originally seen as an oddball secondary project with old friend John Parish, but now generally viewed as a gripping collaborative experiment. Some listeners even consider it her best release – though others still wonder what the heck it was all about. Essentially, Dance Hall is what happened when two strong but opposing musical personalities got together and made a record.
Despite coming after To Bring You My Love in the Harvey chronology, it’s not the follow-up to that record. It’s not even a PJ Harvey album. She takes second place to Parish in the billing, and tasks were shared equally – she wrote the lyrics and sang; he composed the music and played nearly every instrument.
Between them, Harvey and Parish found a space where her theatricality met his sense of discipline. These songs feel like short stories, with Harvey’s lyrics and vocals as the plots and Parish’s crisp playing the finely etched illustrations. She’s visceral, he’s intellectual, and the meeting of opposites made for a stunning and sometimes ominous record.
So how it could have been dismissed as “a minor outing for her” by one 1996 reviewer is hard to fathom. You only need to hear the track “Taut,” a sinister, gibbering wreck of a song, or the numbed cover of Peggy Lee’s “Is That All There Is?” to know that she put all her formidable energies into it.
Sales, however, didn’t match those of To Bring You My Love. There were reasons: despite having co-produced that LP, multi-instrumentalist Parish was more or less unknown, and Harvey herself did little to promote the record. Added to that, many listeners simply didn’t understand what they were doing.
Harvey, for her part, has always been passionate about it: “That’s the record I’m really proud of,” she said in 2001. “It was an enormous turning point. Faced with John’s music, which is so different to my own, it just made me write lyrics in a very different way.”
By 1996, Harvey was coming out of 12 solid months of promoting To Bring You My Love, the album that took her to the top of the alt-rock A-list. She was “very worn and very disillusioned,” she admitted years later. Much of the past year had been consumed by touring, an exhausting process, though she’d considerably upped her performing game: stagewear had included a neon-pink catsuit, and a mermaid costume. In Britain, she was such hot property that in July of that year she appeared on the nation’s flagship music show, Top of the Pops.
Accordingly, expectations for her next album were high. But the “real” next album, Is This Desire?, wouldn’t come until 1998. The reason was that, after three PJ Harvey band LPs in a row plus the just-ended tour, she couldn’t face doing it all again. Making a record with Parish – whom she’d known since she was 17 and played sax in his band Automatic Dlamini – was the solution.
It all started with a request from Harvey. Parish had recently written music for a local theatre production, and she was so taken with it that she asked him to compose some songs for her “in that kind of [theatrical] vein.” Parish quickly came up with several tracks, and she began writing lyrics for them while still touring To Bring You My Love.
Parish was the tour guitarist, so she was able to present him with her words as soon as she’d written them – literally delivering tapes to his hotel room. (Every title on the tracklist is followed by a city name in parentheses – Tokyo, Modena, Stockholm, et al – referring to the places where the lyrics were conceived). In February 1996, they decamped to a studio near Harvey’s Dorset home and three weeks later, Dance Hall At Louse Hall was done.
Harvey had often felt exasperated by listeners who assumed her tunes were autobiographical. With this record, she was absolutely adamant that they were fictitious. The characters were so extreme she noted, that nobody could possibly think they were real. Indeed, “Taut” begins with the words, “Can I tell you something? Can I tell you a story?” It goes on to reminisce about the “spring or summer of ’65,” when the protagonist and boyfriend Billy spent their days having vigorous sex in his red car. There’s practically a John Updike novel in this track.
What she and Parish presented to listeners on Dance Hall at Louse Point was 39 minutes of storytelling, with Harvey trying on different roles. On the humid, Delta-bluesy “Rope Bridge Crossing,” she’s a man, urged by his woman to live his life – she’ll be waiting when he returns; then there’s the departing soldier and his girl in “Civil War Correspondent” (its intricate push-and-pull between Polly’s vocal and Parish’s guitar is impressive).
The penultimate title track is a jazz-rock instrumental, giving Parish his moment in the sun, and the LP ends in a cliffhanger in the form of “Lost Fun Zone,” one-and-a-half minutes of Harvey – or whoever she’s playing – claiming she would never die… she’ll be back.
Polly and Parish would collaborate on another album in 2009, A Woman A Man Walked By, but the strangeness and fervor of Dance Hall At Louse Point makes it a one-off. This is the sound of musicians creating something confounding, moving, and greater than the sum of its parts.