The River

Album: Is This Desire? (1998)

Songfacts®:

  • British alt rocker PJ Harvey explores the breakdown of a relationship in this haunting ballad that follows a couple along the quiet path to a river, where they hope to be cleansed from their pain. Harvey's songs aren't strictly autobiographical, but the singer had just endured a breakup after an intense romance with Nick Cave.
  • Many of the lyrics were borrowed from the 1955 short story "The River" by Flannery O'Connor. In the story, a young boy is neglected by his hard-partying parents and is taken by his fundamentalist Christian babysitter to the river to be baptized by a preacher. The boy, expecting his troubles to be over after the cleansing ritual, returns home to find that nothing has changed with his parents, leading to disastrous results.

    The refrain, "Throw your pain in the river, leave your pain in the river to be washed away slow," was taken from the preacher's words during the baptism:

    "All the rivers come from that one River and go back to it like it was the ocean sea and if you believe, you can lay your pain in that River and get rid of it because that's the River that was made to carry sin. It's a River full of pain itself, pain itself, moving toward the Kingdom of Christ, to be washed away, slow, you people, slow as this here old red water river round my feet."

    Likewise, Harvey's image of two silent birds circling was taken from the boy's observation during the ceremony as his "eyes followed drowsily the slow circles of two silent birds revolving high in the air."
  • Harvey didn't grow up in a religious household but occasionally employs biblical references in her songs. She became especially interested in Christianity around the time of this album's release when she portrayed a modern-day Mary Magdalene, one of Jesus' followers, in the film The Book of Life. When asked by The Guardian about her religious beliefs, she replied: "I have my own beliefs, which I probably won't talk about. It's a very important part of my interest, and I'm aware of religion and its impact on everyone and everything."

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