Saturday, 19 December 2015

PJ Harvey Albums Rated - part 3

The final three. A couple of lows before a monumental high...

Uh Huh Her (2004)

I have a rather odd relationship with 'Uh Huh Her'. It was nearly four years since the mega-success of 'Stories From The City...' and Polly was rejuvenated. She took her time over it - two years of writing and recording. She also did pretty much everything herself at home. Only the final drum tracks and backing vocals were added with the help of others at the end of the process.

The end result couldn't have been more different to its glossy predecessor. 'Uh Huh Her' is altogether more ragged and earthy, a rather dirty-sounding record. Who The Fuck? sounds like a demo. In fact, quite a few of the album's 14 tracks sound like demos. Pocket Knife would fit quite comfortably on 'Is This Desire?' So would The Slow Drug, its backing track sounding like it might have been lifted off Peter Gabriel's fourth album.

The Letter is one of my favourite PJ Harvey singles, simple in construction yet imbued with the unexpected twists of we've come to expect; those backing vocals for a start. Cat On The Wall is another of my highlights with its growly distortion. But It's You steals the show for me. It's more reminiscent of the dark experiments on 'To Bring You My Love'. It rumbles in sinister fashion in complete contrast to Polly's lovelorn lyrics. Then there's The Desperate Kingdom Of Love, a beautiful, intimate moment featuring just a tender vocal over a strummed acoustic guitar; quite unlike anything she'd released before.

One disappointment is the fragment of No Child Of Mine. It was later that same year recorded in full by Marianne Faithfull (ably assisted by Polly, of course), but I'd love to hear a complete version by its writer. Overall though, it's an album high in quality in terms of its material and its sounds. So why do I have this difficult relationship with it? Well I just don't think it sounds like an album; you know, like a 'proper' album. It doesn't quite hang together for me. A bit like 'Is This Desire?' really. I played it a hell of a lot when it came out, but I still don't hear is as a coherent album. It's a bit all over the place, never quite settling down, restless and fidgety. And it's got a minute of seagulls on it. Seagulls!?! But, it has bags of quality with plenty to love about it too. See my dilemma?

(7 / 10)


White Chalk (2007)
Probably PJ Harvey's most unusual album, purely from the point of it not being the sort of record we expected. While it's difficult to know what we're ever going to get from her, a set of piano-led ballads wasn't the first thing that sprang to mind. One of the reasons for that is perhaps that piano was never one of Harvey's many instruments (she also plays harp, zither and cigfiddle[1] here). However, she taught herself to play and the results are rather surprising.

Haunting is probably a good word to use to describe the music on 'White Chalk'. The songs are quite dark (not unusual for her), but not perhaps as uneasy or disturbing as some of her previous work. They're almost ghost-like in places, especially when Polly's voice soars to the highest register she's sung in yet (just listen to her chilling wails in The Mountain). Songs like The Devil and The Piano could be among her career highlights. It's just that overall, it can get a little repetitive. There's far less excitement and variety on 'White Chalk' than your typical PJ Harvey album and less to keep you (me) gripped.

Not my favourite PJ Harvey moment then, but you can't fault her bravery and artistry in putting out something so quiet and understated. Having said that, "Hit her with a hammer / Teeth smashed in" are really not the sort of lyrics you'd expect on such a record. It is PJ Harvey after all, so maybe it's not so different. And at least it sounds like more of an album than its predecessor.

(6 / 10)


Let England Shake (2011)
The war album. Her best album? Very probably. In fact very little released this decade even comes close to 'Let England Shake'. It is Harvey's most different-sounding album, both musically and vocally and by god does it astound in every way. The subject matter (war and conflict) really shouldn't be a source of such wonder and awe, yet PJ Harvey - and perhaps only PJ Harvey - can make it as charming as it is jarring.

The majority of the songs were composed on the autoharp, with Harvey having to "find the voice" with which to put them across. The title track which opens the record illustrates her new sound perfectly, as does The Glorious Land which sounds like a decades-old folk song. Its bugle call reminds us of the protagonist's situation - fighting for his 'glorious land' of England. This track, perhaps more than any other, resonates with the true tragedy of war.

The Words That Maketh Murder is horrific. Part of Harvey's research involved reading modern-day testimonies from civilians and soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan. Its lyrics illustrate the full horror of war:

  "I've seen and done things I want to forget;
  I've seen soldiers fall like lumps of meat,
  Blown and shot out beyond belief.
  Arms and legs were in the trees."

On Battleship Hill stuns. Polly's voice reaches the highest register of her career (even higher than it did on 'White Chalk'), and it chills. Written On The Forehead samples Niney The Observer's Blood And Fire to staggering effect. It is one of my favourite PJ Harvey tracks. On The Colour Of The Earth, Harvey duets with Mick Harvey. It's another triumph, a haunting folk song telling the sad tale of a World War One soldier paying tribute to his best friend who was killed:

  "I thought I heard Louis' voice
  Calling for his mother, then me
  But I couldn't get to him."

The acclaim 'Let England Shake' received is richly deserved, not least in winning both the Mercury Music Prize and the prestigious Ivor Novello Best Album Award. It's difficult for me to pick a favourite between 'Dry' and 'Let England Shake'. They are both very, very different records released at very, very different stages of Harvey's career. However, they are both remarkable records in their own right and I love them both.

(9 / 10)


One more final installment on Monday where I pick up the best 'odds and sods' of PJ's catalogue.



  1. Based on your ratings, your two favorites are mine as well. I'm not as familiar with some of the "low" points, but you described them wonderfully. Really enjoyed the series.

  2. I said it to you before but I didn't get all the plaudits for Let England Shake.

  3. I'm another who doesn't understand all the love for 'Shake'. Have tried more than once to appreciate it but it has yet to register.

    Great series Robster. Now how about an ICA??? You know you want to......