The pop Industry loves to simulate authenticity, a trick that, like the manufacturing of fake antiques, puts demands on the consumer. It’s hard to tell an original (Michelle Shocked’s The Texas Campfire Tapes) from a copy (the Cowboy Junkies). So make no mistake: Raw, revelatory and indispensable, 4-Track Demos is no mere PJ Harvey Unplugged. These 14 cuts, recorded by English songwriter Polly Jean Harvey in 1992 on a four-track, reveal an artist in the pure state of creation, fully in her element, on her own.
The tracks were demos for Rid of Me, the album the trio PJ Harvey released last spring. Eight songs made it to that disc; five others have never been released before; one, “Reeling,” appears in a full-band version on the single for “50 Ft. Queenie.” Harvey, so the story goes, wanted to release the demos along with the finished album, as she did in limited editions of the band’s debut, Dry. Economics made a double release unfeasible. As it is, the depth, range and conceptual completeness of Demos make you wonder why Harvey bothered with such conventions as a band and a producer at all.
Undoubtedly, Harvey has wondered the same thing hence the release of Demos and her announcement of an indeterminate band structure after the departure of drummer Rob Ellis. The demos prove how much of the band’s sound Harvey had been responsible for. Her guitar and vocal rhythms on these tapes, which are spare in production but dense in ideas, are so rich and forceful that bass and drums are scarcely missed. This isn’t so much a dis of Ellis and bassist Steve Vaughan, who are able musicians, as an affirmation of Harvey’s self-sufficiency.
Demos, however, does make Rid of Me producer Steve Albini look like an unimaginative dullard. All the arrangements for the tracks on Rid of Me are fully in place on Demos, as are the best production ideas some of which Albini didn’t even use. Everybody already knows that Albini buried Harvey’s superb singing, but the demos reveal that the king of noise didn’t even capture the expressive range of her guitar playing.
Demos’ extra tracks raise questions about why Rid of Me bothered with such filler as “Highway 61 Revisited” and two versions of “Man-Size.” “Reeling” is one of Harvey’s catchiest rockers, a tune whose shameless aspirations “I want to bathe in milk/Eat grapes/Robert De Niro/Sit on my face” will surely go down in history. Harvey’s acid defense of female sexuality in “Easy” dramatizes why women have embraced her. And her use of blues on “Goodnight,” a distorted dream about a house in the country, as well as Spanish guitars, violins and elements of folk and opera elsewhere on Demos, shows that this postpunk Joni Mitchell has visions of a world larger than the alternative nation.
The fantasies in “Reeling” and “Goodnight” confirm desire and disappointment as Harvey’s main themes. Somehow, she keeps her head on straight and makes the right decisions, not getting swallowed by disappointments following her desires.