Cult Classics Album Breakdown 17

John Parish & Polly Jean Harvey – Dance Hall at Louse Point (1996)

This is a record so thrillingly sinister it leaves Paranormal Activity firmly in the shade. It was copied for me by my mate Andy, who has a cunning ability to grip me with weird and wonderful new music. Not only do the guitars seep under your flesh, but PJ Harvey’s split personality exercise in trying voices on like hats prove totally compelling. I went out and bought the record immediately afterwards. And, I also have to say, that album cover is stunning. Organic, mysterious, gripping.

On the very first listen I was a little unsure about Dance Hall At Louse Point, simply because it was so left-field. It was a bit of a shock to the audio senses, to be honest. However, once I’d realised the importance of immersing myself in this deep, jet-black, eerie, rather hectic record, it all made sense. PJ Harvey is just about the most unique British songwriter there is. John Parish, on this occasion, forms the perfect Yin to her Yang. As an album it was panned by multiple major magazines – Rolling Stone being one – but we’ve all got a right to our opinions, right?

Now, I can’t butter this up – Dance Hall At Louse Point is extremely challenging musically as well as intellectually. Parish is a genius at writing demanding and inventive music, and PJ Harvey’s lyrical contribution stands up to meet it head on, baring her insides and whispering at shadows. I can only liken each song to two trains heading for one another on a beautiful smoky sunset. It’s not for everyone. It was certainly for me.

I was lucky enough to witness a very rare gig by John Parish and PJ Harvey in Birmingham Town Hall early in 2009, in which their second collaboration album, A Woman A Man Walked By, was the focus of their attention. However, they also revisited songs from Dance Hall At Louse Point with style – a magical night of cult entertainment, complete with shrill screams and flashing lights and art-rock wannabes everywhere and gothic imagery and moments of outstanding, frustrating, mesmerising, enigmatic weirdness. I seem to recall a stunning live version of the shimmering opening track to this album, Girl, in which you could have heard a pin drop.

PJ Harvey is somewhat of an enigma; a musical recluse and cult star, she has quantum-stepped in and out of the shadows during a stunning near twenty year career that started in 1992 with her debut record Dry. Her achievements since have been on her terms, which is why she is quite rightly one of the most respected female artists around today. Dance Hall At Louse Point is a major achievement in my eyes – a dazzling record that explores the unlocked rooms in music that most artists dare not dream of entering. Rope Bridge Crossing – a curious, confessional wronged-love song – takes the album closer to the cliff edge. That is a songwriting trait in which Harvey has become exceedingly proficient. 

City Of No Sun is a frenetic and intimidating thrasher with idyllic, serene moments, slicing into the charming, acoustic That Was My Veil – one of the album highlights. Urn With Dead Flowers In A Drained Pool is a mixed tempo, experimental collage with lots of Gothic imagery – Nick Cave clearly rubbed off on Polly Jean. Civil War Correspondent shows Parish’s extraordinary ability to tinker with sound to paint unusual and percussive soundscapes for Harvey to work with. Her vocals are, essentially, the key strength of the record, but could not assume their power without this highly cerebral music accompanying. 

Don’t let anyone tell you a record is too weird to listen to. That’s my motto these days.

Taut is an alarmingly intense, and in parts terrifying track of the likes I’ve never heard before. In fact, I’ve heard this particular tune described as ‘complete madness’ in one review. It’s rather difficult to disagree, though there’s a very fine line between madness and genius. It’s a somewhat industrial and confrontational. Overall a totally unique, if not bemusing piece of art school noise. You might describe it as fucking about, if you were more cynical.

Un Cercle Autour Du Soleil (Circle Around The Sun) is a sombre ballad, and Heela reminiscent of something off Jeff Buckley’s Grace, or at worst something by Floyd, and is interjected by a delightful passage of vocals by John Parish layering Harvey’s pleasurable drone. In fact, Parish’s voice makes you want to punch him and salute him in equal measure – and there it is, the penny has dropped. This is an album that gets on your tits so much it’s simply brilliant. Either that, or my trained ear is so untrained it’s untrue.

The only cover version on the album – a haunting and despairing Is That All There Is – kind of shakes the innocence out of the Hollywood Blockbuster. Nobody but Harvey could deliver this with such morbid sincerity. Title track Dance Hall At Louse Point is a cheeky and brazen instrumental, whilst the final track Lost Fun Zone is an uncharacteristic boogie infused by Harvey’s instruction: “Take me one more time.” I’m not sure where she wants me to take her, and to be honest, I’m not sure I’d want to go. I find myself so exhausted at the end of this record that I’m ready to watch Mr Tumble with some Ben & Jerry’s.

This is by no means an easy record to get into. In similar fashion to Dr John’s Gris Gris, it is challenging from the first note until the sound of that final click. Even PJ Harvey’s own record label condemned the album as “commercial suicide.” However, I am a massive fan – it does something to me that is very difficult to explain. It’s a middle finger to the industry, its ballsy, it’s unhinged, it’s bizarre.

Dance Hall At Louse Point demonstrates artistic bravery, originality, and conviction, and I applaud PJ Harvey and John Parish for making such organic music.

I’d applaud you more if you had the balls to give it a chance.

★★★★★★★☆☆

8/10

© 2018 Condé Nast

Top track trio:

Girl

Rope Bridge Crossing

Heela