Happy 25th birthday to Rid of Me, PJ Harvey's goth-punk masterpiece, which dropped on May 4th, 1993. On her second album, the 23-year-old lass from the English countryside seized the wide-open opportunities of early-Nineties rock and opened them even wider. She goes for shameless rock & roll bravado – "Man-Size," "50 Ft Queenie," "Ecstasy," "Dry" – reveling in her old-school guitar-hero moves even when she's mocking them. Polly Jean Harvey spends these songs digging out her most twisted nightmares and setting them on fire, with a taste of kerosene from her producer Steve Albini.
"The air-guitar record of the decade," I called it in Rolling Stone, and that still feels right. "I had just come out of my teens and at that time you really want to make your mark on the world," Harvey recalled a few years ago. "I was trying to cause a riot in one way or another."
You can catch a glimpse of that riot in her September 1993 performance on The Tonight Show, one of the strangest things ever aired on Nineties TV.
Harvey is visiting Jay Leno to play "Rid of Me," in front of her biggest American audience so far (including me and most of my friends, who'd normally never watch Leno). She stands alone with her guitar (her band just broke up on tour) in a glittery gold dress and looks weirdly cheery as she sings, "Lick my injuries!" Jay invites her over to the couch, with Kramer from Seinfeld. "Very nice," Jay says. He asks about the Dorset farm where she lives with her parents. "It's mostly a sheep farm," she says. "I still help with dipping the sheep, ringing lambs' tails and ringing testicles, things like that."
Jay is curious. "What is that?" She smiles politely. "It's for the male lambs that you don't want to become rams. You have to ring their testicles with a rubber band. And after about two weeks they drop off."
So much for the interview. Jay says "very nice" again and cuts to a commercial. Not nice at all, really. This was one of those TV performances nobody witnessing it ever forgot, in all the years before YouTube was invented. It was the first time most PJ Harvey fans got to hear her speaking voice or see that unnerving smile. That smile is audible all over Rid of Me, even as she shreds through her feminist rage and heartbreak. On her 1992 breakthrough hit "Sheela-Na-Gig," she sang, "I'm gonna wash that man right out of my hair," but in Rid of Me she takes more extreme measures, chanting, "Douse hair with gasoline/Set it light and set it free." Even when she's going to the darkest emotional depths, her music has that mischievous baby's-on-fire edge. That's why the album hasn't dated – and why it sounds timelier than ever now.
Harvey grew up on that farm with her sculptor mother and her quarryman father – plus their record collection, full of blues (John Lee Hooker, Howlin' Wolf) and rock (Hendrix, Beefheart). "Keith Richards is one of my heroes," she told Rolling Stone in 1993. That heritage runs deep in Rid of Me – it's like Exile on Main St. fan-fic where her voice is Keith and her guitar is Mick. Hence a brilliant stroke like "Dry," where she kisses off an inept lover with power chords, thudding drums and a woozy slide-guitar solo that hits like pure sarcasm, with the four-word chorus: "You leeeeave! Meeee! Dryyyy!" She sings the line with different venom each time – sometimes stretching out "leave," sometimes spitting "dry" – but her guitar gets the nastiest punch lines.
The "PJ Harvey" that made Rid of Me was a power trio – in the tradition of Alice Cooper, Polly Jean Harvey led a band named after herself, with the killer rhythm section of Stephen Vaughan on bass and Rob Ellis on drums. At their first gig in 1991, at a local bowling alley, they cleared the room so fast they got offered money to stop playing. They went to a nearby studio to cut the debut Dry, making a surprise worldwide splash with "Dress" and "Sheela-Na-Gig." For Rid of Me, the band spent ten days in the snowbound Minnesota woods with Big Black's Steve Albini, at the same studio where he'd produce Nirvana's In Utero a few months later. Harvey wanted Albini for the raw room-tone sound she adored on the Pixies' Surfer Rosa. As Ellis told Spin, "I could really bring out my inner Bonham with that drum sound. Polly's playing is incredible but the sound is amazing. Jimmy Page would be jealous." (Pagey probably was, since he hired Albini a few years later.)
Like a lot of PJ Harvey fans, I bought Rid of Me the day it came out, put the CD on, and wondered what the hell was wrong at first – her voice seemed to be mixed way too low. In "Rid of Me," the opening song, she's barely audible for the first two minutes, until it suddenly explodes into top volume. Her solo 4-Track Demos version is easier on the ears – the vocal clearer, the rhythmic momentum steadier. But the album version is more disturbing, which is how she wanted it. It exposes all the intimate details of her voice – all her panting breaths, her lip-licking. Rid of Me is harsher and heavier than Dry, doing justice to the turmoil in her songs. The Albini touch helps her go for emotional extremes, from the punk aggro of "50 Ft Queenie" ("Hey, I'm the king of the world!") or "Man-Size," to the sexual desolation of "Legs" or "Yuri-G." "Missed" isn't one of the album's famous songs, but it's a real powerhouse. She sings in the voice of a mother mourning a lost son ("Mary lost her head and let it bleed") but lets her guitar tell most of the story.
Rid of Me dropped the same summer as Liz Phair's Exile in Guyville – two albums that fans had always wanted to exist, and two albums that fans felt we'd been awaiting for years. (Just in time for Labor Day, we also got the Breeders' Last Splash.) In the wake of grunge and riot grrrl, new freedoms had opened up for feminist weirdos to make noise. Harvey and Phair sounded nothing alike on the surface, but they shared the sense of a soft-spoken loner plugging in her guitar and finding her voice. This was something new. As critic Jen Fleissner wrote in the Village Voice, "In the movies, girls almost never get to be funny (vs. Jodie Foster/Meryl Streep serious) and occupy center stage. One of the biggest deals in music this year turned out to be women grabbing the limelight and acting not just pissed off, but funny, too. Even funny and scary at once: 'Tarzan, stop your fucking screaming!' or 'I take full advantage of every man I meet.'"
Harvey isn't coy about claiming classic-rock tropes, whether she's desecrating Dylan ("Highway 61 Revisited") or voodoo-child–ing out ("Ecstasy"). She even tweaks the cliché of naming a song after her last album, à la Led Zeppelin's "Houses of the Holy" or Elvis Costello's "Almost Blue." Her blues moves seemed so taboo at the time – the blues, like astrology, is something each generation embraces or rejects to taunt the previous one. But she had an impact on fellow spirits like Kurt Cobain, who went on to sing a Lead Belly song a few months later for Nirvana's MTV Unplugged. Cobain, who famously listed Dry as one of his all-time favorite albums, was so floored by Rid of Me he played it for interviewers. As Dave Grohl told Rolling Stone in 2014, "Kurt loved PJ Harvey. We had always imagined playing our song 'Milk It' from In Utero with her. It's a twisted song, almost like something that could have been on her record Rid of Me."
Harvey followed it quickly with 4-Track Demos in October – eight songs that got remade for the album, six that didn't make the cut. That release was the perfect companion piece – it topped Rid of Me in some ways, yet it also made Rid of Me sound even better by putting its extremist sonics in perspective. "Hardly Wait," a stripped-down ballad about feeling trapped in a glass coffin, might be her most powerful performance, along with the abrasively flippant "Reeling": "I wanna bathe in milk, eat grapes/Robert De Niro, sit on my face." For her next album, To Bring You My Love, she tried a new synth-heavy sound with producer Flood, scoring an unlikely hit with "Down by the Water." She's gone on countless musical adventures ever since, but Rid of Me remains the core of her legend – the moment where Harvey rampaged through rock & roll history as if it all belonged to her, and proved that it did. Set it light. Set it free. Let it bleed.