Friday, 25 November 2016

50 albums to take to my grave #45: Dry


So this is the reason I expunged Sheela-Na-Gig from my list of 50 songs to take to my grave. One of my self-imposed rules was that I couldn't have an album that included one of the 50 songs. Makes sense I suppose. As the 50 albums series continued, I realised I just can't be without PJ Harvey's sensational debut, so a swift edit to the 50 songs list had to be made.

I actually wrote about 'Dry' when I did my PJ Harvey albums series last December, so this piece is basically that same one (with minor tweaks).

(originally published December 2015)

Having played with bands in and around her south-west home (The Family Cat, Automatic Dlamini, Grape), Polly Harvey 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."

Sheela-Na-Gig is 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: 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, yet 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.



Soundtrack:

Video for Sheela-Na-Gig:



4 comments:

  1. I saw her just after the release of 'Dress', a couple of months before 'Dry' came out - a pretty staggering show. Terrific album.

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  2. This is as fine a review of the album as anyone is capable of writing. A joy from start to end.

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