The story of PJ Harvey’s epic cover of the Nick Cave classic ‘Red Right Hand’ begins in 1608 with the birth of a certain literary revolutionary by the name of John Milton. Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds’ timeless anthem borrows a motif that is scattered throughout history since Milton first wove the wherefores of his bold worldview in the epic poem Paradise Lost pitting the forces of heaven and hell in a roving battle.
Like the song itself, the symbolism it leans on is able to be transmuted to fit wherever it is needed, whether that be the gangsters of post-war Birmingham in the series Peaky Blinders or the grand God and Devil dogfight that originated it. The Paradise Lost verse reads: “What if the breath that kindled those grim fires, / Awaked, should blow them into sevenfold rage, / And plunge us in the flames; or from above / Should intermitted vengeance arm again / His red right hand to plague us?”
Milton’s epic was not only revolutionary in the prelapsarian tale that it told, but it is also credited as the text that reimagined Satan as a charismatic seducer as opposed to some wicked creature from the underworld. In truth, Cave’s epic anthem remains equally obfuscated when the story of the crimson fisted protagonist is poured over and perhaps that is befitting of the odious position he found himself in at the time it was written.
Cave was struggling with his drug use, but in a move that he describes as “totally mad” he would sit through a church service in the morning before visiting his dealer in the afternoon, as if to say, “I’ve done a little bit of good, and a little bit of this, ‘What’s problem?’” Naturally, as he said himself, the problem was self-evident and that would soon manifest in the relationship he had with PJ Harvey.
Together, they became the aspirational dream couple for adolescent goths the world over as Cave penned Harvey loving odes, declaring: “Polly Jean, I love you. I love the texture of your skin, the taste of your saliva, the softness of your ears. I love every inch and every part of your entire body. From your toes to the beautifully curved arches of your feet, to the exceptional shade and warmth of your dark hair. I need you in my life, I hope you need me too.”
However, that sweet romance would all come crashing down when Cave received a phone call from PJ Harvey saying she wanted to end the relationship, the quip that Cave offered up when recalling the incident is a hint as to why – “I was so surprised I almost dropped my syringe.” In his Red Hand Files entry on the star, he added: “Deep down I suspected that drugs might have been a problem between us, but there were other things too.”
However, he then concludes: “I think at the end of the day it came down to the fact that we were both fiercely creative people, each too self-absorbed to ever be able to inhabit the same space in any truly meaningful way. We were like two lost matching suitcases, on a carousel going nowhere.” But inevitably, those wandering muses would rub off on each other and in the welter of their output is a solid pinch of their bittersweet past together.
PJ Harvey would make this known in the most perfunctory sense when she covered Cave’s daemon tackling masterpiece of ‘Red Right Hand’. In her sultry version, she gives the song the same expressionist drama that touches all of her songs, and frankly, the piece is a scary thing to behold. Less twisted and scatty, she plucks the tale away from the industrial estate playground where Cave’s version seems to dine out and she transposes a vibe more in line with the historical text that first served up the impetus and offered the iconography of all Cave’s luminous work – a lurid red hand that couples an alchemy of the divine with a means of creative production.