Saturday, 5 December 2015

PJ Harvey Albums Rated - part 1

With a new album being hinted at, I thought it was about time I re-evaluated the work of one Polly Jean Harvey, one of the westcountry's most famous and lauded artists. You never quite know what's coming next with Polly and going back to listen to her discography only serves to show how she diversifies with every record she puts out.

So in the lead-up to Christmas, I'm going to give you my thoughts on each of her albums to date, much like I did with Mr Bowie earlier in the year. I'm going to deal primarily with her main studio discography, but there will be a bonus post at the end of the series to capture the other significant releases. To start with though, it's back to the beginning...

Dry (1992)

Having played with bands in and around her south-west home (The Family Cat, Automatic Dlamini, Grape), Polly had never had an outlet for her own material. With a bunch of songs ready to go, she formed her own power-trio and branded them with her own name, figuring that whatever happens in the future she could always take the name with her. And so it was that PJ Harvey the band went into a studio in Yeovil in the latter half of 1991.

Harvey has said of the resulting album: "[It was] the first chance I ever had to make a record and I thought it would be my last. So, I put everything I had into it. It felt very extreme for that reason." She wasn't joking. 'Dry' is phenomenal in its ferocity. It's raw and sparse, yet it's so unashamedly in your face your first impression is sheer terror. Listening to 'Dry' more than 20 years later, it still strikes me as one of the most intense records I've ever heard. Yet it's so honest, also. Other than the use of some cello, violin and double-bass, there are very little adornments to the guitar-bass-drums-vocals setup. Those embellishments are essential though. Dress stands out for the way that bowed double-bass and Polly's violin dance demonically throughout. The almost discordant strings on Plant And Rags sound as menacing as Harvey's lyrics: "The sun doesn't shine down here / In shadows."

I've already spoken at length about Sheela-Na-Gig, arguably one of the best singles released in the 1990s. It sits right in the middle of the whole thing, taking us to a peak rarely surpassed by anyone. But it's the beginning and the end that sets the pulses racing. Oh My Lover wastes no time at all presenting Harvey as not-your-average wannabe pop star: "Oh my lover / Don't you know it's alright / You can love her / You can love me at the same time." O Stella deals with religious iconography, the Stella of the title being Stella Maris (aka: Our Lady, Star Of The Sea or the Virgin Mary). Her devotion is expressed in an outpouring of fuzzy guitar and screams of "Gold / No! No!" while in Dress, she becomes "a fallen woman in a dancing costume."

Then, to conclude, Water builds like a storm before the final strains of Harvey and Rob Ellis yelling "Waaaa-teerrrrrr!" can be heard. It ends. The dam is fit to burst. If Harvey really did make this record as if it were her last, she certainly ended it sounding like there was unfinished business. This particular listener was left wanting more.

The acclaim heaped on 'Dry' since its release is fully deserved, but still feels woefully inadequate. It is one of the most tense and emotional albums you'll ever hear, and the fact it is the work of a 22-year-old Dorset girl makes it even more startling. I had never met any woman close to my age who could make my hairs stand on end like Polly Harvey could. Words just can't cut it; 'Dry' is an experience you simply have to live through to get it.



Rid Of Me (1993)
As it turned out, there was unfinished business, but it could well have remained unfinished. Following a gruelling touring schedule in support of 'Dry', Harvey emerged drained and ill, retreating back to Dorset to recover from a breakdown. During her recuperation, she wrote the songs that would appear on her follow-up.

If 'Dry' was raw and edgy, 'Rid Of Me' was downright abrasive. This was a different Polly Harvey. She sounded psychotic at times, something she puts down to the state of her health at the time of writing. The sound is perhaps aided by Steve Albini's claustrophobic production. Critics were at odds on this, but I'm one of those who believes it perfectly captures the agonies and distresses of the songs.

The first thing to note about 'Rid Of Me' is that it is most certainly not 'Dry' volume 2. It's a difficult album to get through. The songs are not nearly as striking and even its lighter moments are darker than anything on its predecessor. Legs is traumatic, Harvey's despairing wails and moans are jarring. The opening title track holds back with its extended muted-guitar intro before Harvey finally unleashes her frustrations: "Don't you wish you'd never, never met her?" I even find Rob Ellis' chants of "Lick my legs, I'm on fire / Lick my legs of desire" chilling.

50ft Queenie is a frenzy and still one of her best songs and Me-Jane is a no-nonsense highlight ("Tarzan, I'm pleading / Stop your fucking screaming!" is one of my fave PJ Harvey lyrics!). Generally though, the mood of 'Rid Of Me' is low and gloomy. This is not a fun record.

Where 'Rid Of Me' suffers most of all is its length. With 14 tracks, it feels just a little too much. The odd strings-only Man-Size Sextet is completely out of place, and I'm not convinced the Bob Dylan cover Highway '61 Revisited works in the grand scheme of things. Overall, while 'Rid Of Me' is notable for its sheer angst-ridden energy, it isn't as good a record as 'Dry', nowhere near.




  1. Way to go, Robster. This is going to be most enjoyable. We are simpatico so far. Always liked Dry.

  2. If Rid Of Me had been the debut, it would be considered a classic. But you're quite right that it didn't have quite the impact of the stunning debut. I hadn't quite realised just how young she was at the time till you put in there in black and white.