Dry (Indigo, 1992)
Rid of Me (Indigo, 1993)
4-Track Demos (Island, 1993)
To Bring You My Love (Island, 1995)
Is This Desire? (Island, 1998)
Stories From the City, Stories From the Sea (Island, 2000)
Uh Huh Her (Island, 2004)
The Peel Sessions 1991-2004 (Island, 2006)
White Chalk (Island, 2007)
When Polly Jean Harvey burst out of an English farm town in 1992, the world may not have been ready for her. Sounding frighteningly off-her-meds at times, Harvey howled dark poetry, re-imagined the blues for the alt-rock era, and turned lovelorn melodrama and metaphysical yearning into classic rock & roll on three jaw-droppingly great albums: Rid of Me; To Bring You My Love; and Stories From the City, Stories From the Sea.
Dry announced Harvey in all her stark, hard-rocking glory. She and her two bandmates (collectively known as PJ Harvey) ripped through songs as intense as anything the hair-flailing grunge boys delivered, with Harvey wailing like a modern-day Howlin' Wolf and cranking out sloppy guitar noise. On the superb single "Sheela-na-gig," Harvey even supplies an honest-to-goodness hook of sorts, rhyming "Gonna wash that man right outta my hair" with "Gonna take my hips to a man who cares." Elsewhere, standouts such as "Dress" and "O Stella" get by on Harvey's rough-hewn and undeniable presence.
Rid of Me burns with the same raw, DIY intensity, but by then, PJ Harvey, abetted nicely by producer Steve Albini, was pushing herself to extremes. On "50 Ft. Queenie," Harvey declares herself "the king of the world"; on the title track, Harvey whispers, "You're not rid of me" over and over again, before the band erupts into a torrent of noise and Harvey tells a lover that he'll eventually wish he had never met her. For heroic good measure, Harvey also provides a perfectly rocking version of "Highway 61 Revisited." Harvey's original sketches for most of the Rid of Me material are presented on 4-Track Demos, augmented by several unreleased songs (including the excellent "Reeling," where she urges Robert De Niro to sit on her face). The disc isn't revelatory, but it's nice to be able to clearly discern the over-the-top emoting that was ambushed in Rid of Me's guitar onslaught.
With U2 producer Flood (along with Harvey and percussionist John Parish) behind the boards, To Bring You My Love was inspired by the blues only figuratively, in its slow ache. No longer so sex-obsessed, Harvey toned down her guitar attack and draws on keyboards and eerie electro-atmospherics for a set of songs that are slow, beautiful, and preternaturally dark. Over the title track's slow, spare riff, Harvey calls out to Jesus himself, and from there she keeps up creepy metaphysics most notably on the cabaret-influenced "Down by the Water," the psychotically pounding "Meet ze Monsta," and "C'mon Billy," on which she begs a lover to come home with her and meet their kid.
Harvey resolved not to fuck with her formula too much on Is This Desire? Like its predecessor, Desire is atmospheric, haunting, and vaguely sinister, but it's also more cerebral and beholden to Eurogloom textures; Harvey layers keyboards, acoustic guitars, and electrobeats with subdued precision. The gothic third-person narratives—featuring characters named Leah, Angelene, and Elise, among others—don't quite radiate the immediate presence of Harvey's best stuff, but the desperate, truly disconcerting "Joy" and the whispered "The Wind" rank high in her catalogue.
After a two-year hiatus, Harvey returned with her finest album, Stories From the City, Stories From the Sea, pulling a truly shocking about-face: She sounds downright happy, or at least well-sexed. Employing the big guitar sound of her first two albums, only with a newfound elegance, "Big Exit," "Kamikaze," and "The Whores Hustle and the Hustlers Whore" are expansive and rousing. Harvey drops some deliciously dark and slow moments (especially "Beautiful Feeling" and the Thom Yorke–assisted "This Mess We're In"), but she also gets drunk and wanders happily around New York City. And on the bombastic and awesomely raunchy "This Is Love," arguably her best song ever, she says a big fuck-you to psychosis and sadness as guitars crunch and garments hit the floor: "I can't believe life's so complex/When I just wanna sit here and watch you undress." For anyone wondering what's so special about PJ Harvey, this is the place to start.
Uh Huh Her once again found Harvey in entrancing blues-poet mode, conjuring disturbed, historically significant females such as Clytemnestra, Emily Dickinson, and… Polly Jean Harvey. Raw, riff-heavy numbers such as "Who the Fuck?" and "The Letter" revisit her punkish early days, while "It's You" and the delicately atmospheric "You Come Through" recall the slow-burning metaphysical turn she took with To Bring You My Love. As usual, the songs don't exactly greet you with open arms; instead, they ask you to meet her and her elastic, evocative goth-croon halfway while she wanders badlands of dissatisfaction and desire, comparing a lover's words to poison ("The Life and Death of Mr. Badmouth"), dreaming of good times ("You Come Through"), and brandishing a knife to thwart off marriage (the magnificently creepy "Pocket Knife"). The Peel Sessions collection features a stripped-down, no-frills Harvey and her gnarly band visiting the legendary BBC radio host between 1991 and 2004, with mostly feral attitudes in tow. These raw, punky recordings include an assured pre-Dry appearance, a mosh-worthy Willie Dixon cover and a version of "Snake" so savage it blows Jesus Lizard away.
The piano-heavy White Chalk puts Harvey's distortion pedals back into storage, embarking on a brief freak-folk mini-suite of demure, but no less gloomy, chamber pop. Harvey taught herself to play piano for the record, and it's evident that she was more interested in developing her own unique, percussive, trill-and-stab approach than practicing scales. The hypnotic piano of "Grow Grow Grow," with its alternating bars of 7/4 and 5/4 time, is a classic Harvey riff—it could have been a dizzying Rid Of Me crunchfest. Lyrically, she's isolated to the point of being downright goth, allowing the devil to wander into her soul ("The Devil"), pleading for the darkness to cover her ("Dear Darkness"), and simply singing a suicide note ("Before Departure"). She whispers and strains, often uncomfortably out of her range, and her voice is often harrowing over such skeletal arrangements—at best it sounds like a murder balladeer Kate Bush.
Portions of this album guide appeared in The New Rolling Stone Album Guide (Fireside, 2004).
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