Saturday, 12 December 2015

PJ Harvey Albums Rated - part 2

We reach the point where Polly Jean reached a commercial and critical peak.

To Bring You My Love (1995)

No one could have expected what Polly Harvey had in store for her third album. 'To Bring You My Love' was in so many ways far removed from those first two loud and raw guitar albums. But then, the goalposts had moved somewhat. Having now split PJ Harvey the band, she was now PJ Harvey solo and that's always naturally going to lead to a shift in dynamic. It left her free to experiment. Even so, the extent of the change left many of us unprepared.

The opening title track is a slow-burning earthy blues number that never really bursts into life, but feels sinister and somewhat chilling. That element of PJ Harvey was still intact then. It's what follows that truly delights though. Meet Ze Monsta still rates with me as one of her best tracks. That incessant stomp-stomp-stomp rhythm, the ominous electronic buzzes and fuzzed up guitars, and Harvey's almost demonic vocal combine to make this one of the most extraordinary songs in her canon.

And it doesn't stop there. The darkened mood gets even darker with Working For The Man, the song that stood out for me on first listen. The deep bass rumble that powers the song, coupled with Harvey's quiet, menacing and claustrophobic vocal delivery, makes it possibly her most unique track. Definitely one for a Hallowe'en mixtape. Elsewhere, the acoustic tracks C'mon Billy and Send His Love To Me lend an air of normality to the proceedings; Down By The Water is a disturbing murder ballad of Nick Cave-esque proportions; Long Snake Moan is a rocker (for want of a better word), the loudest, fastest moment on the whole record.

Overall, 'To Bring You My Love' was the album in which Polly Harvey was able to spread her wings as a studio artist. While the first two records were meant to be played live, this one was an exercise in production. It's blues, but not as we'd ever heard it before (it's strewn with references to Captain Beefheart, Muddy Waters, et al). Yet, even as complex a record as it is, she did pull it off live. I saw her perform most of these songs at Glastonbury in 1995 and the experience is still etched in my mind, an extraordinary performance. But even that wasn't the most surprising thing about 'To Bring You My Love' - that honour goes to its commercial success. Who would have thought that this record - this mad, crazy record - would have been her commercial breakthrough? It is a brilliant record, but not one you'd have expected to make Harvey a star.

(8.8 / 10)


Is This Desire? (1998)
In spite of the acclaim and success of 'To Bring You My Love', Polly didn't rush a follow-up. Instead she collaborated with Nick Cave on his 'Murder Ballads' project, and former Automatic Dlamini bandmate John Parish on an album to feature later in this series. By the time 'Is This Desire?' came out, she had been through quite a bit.

Harvey describes this as a very difficult record to make owing to personal circumstances. It is, however, also her favourite. It was certainly her quietest record to date, the loud guitars of her earlier recordings now almost a distant memory. For me though, as a fan, I have never been able to fully connect with 'Is This Desire?'. I'm not sure why, but it doesn't quite hang together for me. That's not to say there aren't some great tracks though. Angelene, The Wind, A Perfect Day Elise, The River and the title track would all feature on a homemade Best of PJ Harvey compilation without a moment's thought. But while the most experimental and odd numbers on 'To Bring You My Love' all seemed to have their own place and helped bind everything together as a whole, on 'Is This Desire?', the experiments either stick out like a sore thumb, or feel directionless or misplaced.

Maybe it's a sequencing thing. I've tried rearranging the running order a couple of times and while it sounds better up to a point, there just seems to be a couple of tracks that don't fit at all. I wouldn't miss My Beautiful Leah or Electric Light, for instance. But then, maybe I'm missing something; far be it from me to question Polly's impeccable judgement. From a personal viewpoint though, 'Is This Desire?' doesn't get near my top 5 PJ Harvey albums.

(6 / 10)


Stories From The City, Stories from The Sea (2000)

Eschewing the darkness of her previous work, Polly decided to make an album that expressed her love of America. 'Stories From The City, Stories From The Sea' couldn't have been more different to anything else she had done before. Little in the way of experimentation; big, bold pop songs you could sing along to; bright, polished production. It was meant to be that way. "I thought, I want absolute beauty. I want this album to sing and fly and be full of reverb and lush layers of melody. I want it to be my beautiful, sumptuous, lovely piece of work."

Sing and fly is exactly what 'Stories From The City...' does. Good Fortune, the lead single, was one of the brightest, most melodic tracks she'd made. It was also one of the most optimistic lyrically: "And I feel like some bird of paradise / My bad fortune slipping away / And I feel the innocence of a child."  Big Exit's guitars chime with glee as Polly's voice soars. A Place Called Home, my fave track on the album, is a little more subdued, but it still glistens with Polly's new-found optimism. There are echoes of early PJ Harvey in there too; Is This Love?, This Wicked Tongue, Kamikaze and The Whores Hustle And The Hustlers Whore turn those guitars up and Polly even rasps her vocals.

Overall, this was PJ Harvey's pop record. It worked far better than anyone could have imagined. It garnered her nominations for BRITs and Grammys, and won her the Mercury Music Prize. She's not made another record like it since. I adored it at the time, but if I'm being honest, I've always preferred her dark side. Listening to it again for this article, I recognise what a good record it is, but it doesn't give me the goosebumps I still get from 'Dry' or 'To Bring You My Love'.

(8 / 10)


This Jools Holland performance is amazing:


  1. Now, of course, I'm wondering if you're going to give any of her albums a higher rating than her debut.

  2. That Jools Holland clip is monumental

  3. The momnent I saw the promo for 'Down By The Water' was genuinely gobsmacking - both in terms of what I was hearing and looking at. It was then I knew PJ was going to be around for a long long time. And little did I know that lecherous Mr Cave was alsoe looking on with interest...