When PJ Harvey started releasing records in the early Nineties, her raw lyrical depictions of sex and violence made people uncomfortable; it wasn’t often you heard a young, female artist (or a male one for that matter) sing something like “I’ll make it better/I’ll rub ’til it bleeds.” But Harvey wasn’t trying to play alt-rock Alice Cooper. She came about her strong stomach honestly, working as a teenage farm hand in England’s West Country. “I used to ‘ring’ all the lambs’ tails and testicles,” she told the NME. “I’d clear up dead [stillborn] lambs when they came out in bits — because sometimes they’d decompose inside the sheep and you’d take them out bit by bit.” So she never winced when she sang, “I’m happy and bleeding for you” on Dry’s “Happy and Bleeding,” or when fetishizing the dismemberment of her lover on Rid of Me’s “Legs,” or even while conjuring the image of oral sex with Robert De Niro in 4-Track Demos’ “Reeling.”
“I like to humiliate myself and make the listener feel uncomfortable,” she told Spin in 1993. “That [is] the ideal package.”
Even now, nearly three decades after the jerking rhythms of her debut single “Dress,” and its whimsical tale of trying to impress a man by putting on one particularly ill-fitting frock, catapulted her from her home village of Corscombe (population then: 600) onto the world stage, her earliest recordings still sound gloriously perverse. It’s a different hue of shock rock, one that feels more believable and human, like your own personal nervous breakdown, a strangely appealing elixir of whispers and screams.
Harvey recently kickstarted a series of reissues with her band’s 1992 debut, Dry, and the mostly solo demo recordings she made for each of its songs while at art school the previous summer. At the time, there was a stark contrast between Polly Jean Harvey, the singer and guitarist, and PJ Harvey, the three-piece band. Listening now to how raw her music was and how mordant her wit was on the newly rechristened Dry – Demos (which originally came out on a limited-edition Dry bonus disc in 1992 with the title Demonstration), it sometime sounds like a different album. But it also foreshadowed the intimate sounds and inner-voice poetry that has defined her later work.
Without drums or tight production, songs like “Victory,” “O Stella, and “Hair” have more in common with the blues artists who inspired Harvey growing up than the alternative scene she was lumped in with. Although she was a Pixies fan who played sax in local indie bands and had a brief moment of rebellion in the Eighties when Duran Duran and Spandau Ballet ruled her world (“Soft Cell singing ‘Tainted Love’ is probably one of my favorite songs of all time,” she once told Rolling Stone), Harvey was most interested in the records that belonged to her sculptor mother and stoneworker father than those on Top of the Pops. Her heroes were the same bluesmen who inspired Eric Clapton and Jimmy Page: Howlin’ Wolf, Elmore James, Muddy Waters, Robert Johnson, John Lee Hooker. The rock artists she cited in interviews were fellow blues students: Jimi Hendrix, Keith Richards, Tom Waits, Nick Cave, Captain Beefheart. When the BBC prodded her in ’92 to name some current artists that moved her, the only one she summoned was th’ Faith Healers, whose drummer, Joe Dilworth, was her boyfriend and, after their breakup, became the focus of her ire on 1993’s Rid of Me.
“There was so much of that feeling in blues music whether it was good or bad,” she told Spin in 1995. “That feeling, that roughness … I thought, ‘Yeah, you can have both. You can be young and have this incredible ‘guts’ to what you’re doing. You can say strong things. You don’t have to sing about the washing up or the kitchen sink — you can think about really important things in a really honest way.'”
On “O Stella,” she sings to Stella Maris, the Virgin Mary, whom she calls her guiding light. She strums acoustic guitar on the demo recording, working her way through the riff’s unusual rhythms with little guitar accents thrown in here and there as she repeats the lines “I think I see her smiling” and “A place for heroes only,” driving them into listeners’ brains. The Dry version is faster, electric, and awe-inspiring — a completely different vibe with her bandmates, bassist Steve Vaughan and Rob Ellis, reining in her rhythms. The “Oh My Lover” demo features even trickier acoustic guitar, and Robert Johnson and Bob Dylan (whose “Highway 61 Revisited” she later covered and whose evasiveness in interviews she mirrored) echo through her playing as she sighs her lyrics; the Dry version is practically doom rock by comparison with its plodding bass. Her slide-guitar work on “Victory” and “Happy and Bleeding” shows her Elmore James influence, though the 4-Track Demos version of “Ecstasy” is where it drops jaws. Musically, the demos feel like a shadow world — her id — compared to the band’s extraversion.
Her words feel even more cutting here, like a journey into the horror and humor that defines her poetic aesthetic. “It’s not just [about] extremes of loud and quiet,” she told the NME in 1992, “as a writer, I want extremes in the lyrics, too.” With her voice competing mostly only with acoustic guitar on Dry – Demos, the way she takes the Biblical story of Mary of Bethany cleaning Jesus’ feet with her hair on “Joe” makes a line like “Lay my enemies out in lines/Come in close and I’ll wash your feet/With my hair I’d mop them dry” stick out in a way it didn’t on Dry’s funk-metal miasma. On their own, the words could also easily fit on her more musically restrained works like Is This Desire? or Let England Shake.
And “Sheela-Na-Gig” — another tongue-in-cheek yarn like “Dress,” about a disinterested suitor, paired with a “sheela na gig,” the name of the British Isles’ many stone statues depicting women with wide grins spreading open their vulvas — sounds more like a giddy folk song than the album version. “He said, ‘Sheela-na-gig, sheela-na-gig, you exhibitionist,'” she sings in the chorus, before ironically quoting South Pacific’s “I’m Gonna Wash That Man Right Out of My Hair,” and the comedy of it is also more apparent on the acoustic version where the words are more on exhibit. She yodels a little at the start of “Water” and coos, “Ease myself into a body bag,” on “Plants and Rags.” “For me, [artists] want to make people listen that little bit harder,” she told the NME. “You want them to think, ‘There’s something not quite right about this… What is it?'”
After linking up with Ellis and Vaughan — after a few years playing in Bristol artist John Parish’s quirky, almost XTC-like group Automatic Dlamini — the trio developed the songs into the powerful laments that made Dry a hit. But in the context of Dry – Demos, as the topless photo on its cover suggests, the active ingredients are Harvey’s own crude vulnerability and her instinct to magnify it and shine it through the lenses of characters, metaphors, and obtuse expressionistic rock. Those qualities are what made Dry one of Kurt Cobain’s favorite records and it made Courtney Love respect her, but it was also brawny enough to make fans out of Jon Bon Jovi and Steven Tyler. “Basic, raw, noisy, simple, exciting, stomach wrenching,” were the words Harvey herself used to describe her own music in a 1992 BBC interview before smiling and adding, “indigestion making.” When she asked Steve Albini to record Rid of Me, the notoriously prickly engineer said he too the gig not because he liked them live but because “I thought her guitar playing was cool.” If Dry were more refined or quaint, you wouldn’t be reading this.
The PJ Harvey trio ratcheted up the extremes on Rid of Me with slashing guitar and venomous lyrics, and the video for their biggest hit, “50ft Queenie” — in which Harvey struts around her bandmates in a leopard overcoat and brags, “Ah come on, measure me/I’m 50 inches long” — made her a star. They cranked up the perversity on “Rid of Me” by having Ellis sing “Lick my legs, and I’m on fire” in a creepy falsetto. “It really did scare me,” Harvey said of the song in a 1993 NME article, explaining she wrote it when her boyfriend left her. “I couldn’t listen to it for a while. I couldn’t play it to anyone. … I was too embarrassed, like, ‘What on earth would people think of me if I played it to them?'” It also featured the song “Dry,” which had come out on the “Dress” single but was held back as an album cut long enough to milk extra viciousness out of the line, “You put it right in my face but you leave me dry.”
“I don’t find [my lyrics] shocking myself particularly,” she told the BBC in 1992, at the time she was writing Rid of Me. “I’m always looking to write something that is gonna shock myself. In fact, I think I really have now, but what people seem to be finding shocking at the moment, I don’t think it is at all. I think it’s very tame.” So what was shocking for her then? “Listening to something that I’ve written and feeling physically sick or really uncomfortable about it.”
Ultimately the PJ Harvey band imploded when Harvey and Ellis stopped speaking on tour, and as a stopgap, she released 4-Track Demos, another collection of her raw solo recordings that rivals Rid of Me in its rawness. Unlike the Dry demos, these recordings were electric and brutal. “It’s blistering, and it’s just a bunch of fucking demos,” Spiritualized’s Jason Pierce said of the record.
Harvey has so far teased one demo, “Down by the Water,” from 1995’s To Bring You My Love — her fourth LP and first solo album, which introduced John Parish and Guitar Player wordsmith Joe Gore as her new guitarists, so she could sing more — and it shows a much more unified vision for the sound of the record. She sings her verses over fuzzy bass and whispers, “give me my daughter,” like she does on the studio version, but it’s sparser and feels more claustrophobic. The Love demos, which will come out September 11th, give another view of how Harvey, who has always been reluctant to talk about her music, reveals herself. (What’s missing in her demos reissues, though, is some of the connective tissue in her songwriting — the “Dry” demo, bluesy lost tracks like 1993’s “Claudine, the Inflatable One” and “Primed and Ticking,” her penchant for covering the Stones’ “Satisfaction” solo and once with Björk, though diehard Harveyologists have probably already picked those, ahem, dry.)
But for all the naked gore of her early demos, what’s to come may be even more fascinating. The “Down by the Water” demo is a portrait of a sea-change for her, when it seemed like she had moved on from her past after saying she wanted a career that was as varied like David Bowie’s and threatened to retire fan favorites like “Sheela-Na-Gig” and “Dress” (though she didn’t); they will provide a fuller picture of an artist who has always thrived in shadows. “I’ll never give the people what they want,” she told Rolling Stone in 1993. But at the same time, what she may not have realized is that she always has, simply by spilling her guts.