England’s Polly Jean Harvey — distinct from the group PJ Harvey — came to public attention in 1992 with Dry, a startlingly scabrous and extremely dramatic portrait of a woman on the verge of total emotional collapse. While Harvey would later downplay its trenchancy and focus, it’s important to note how explicit and abject Dry‘s worldview was: on the opening track (“Oh My Lover”), the singer begs for merely the opportunity to share her lover with another woman; ten songs later, the tightly wound “Water” (as in “walking on…”) ends the album with a gulp. And in the album’s ferocious centerpiece, “Sheela-Na-Gig,” Harvey revels in the figure of a fertility goddess presenting her privates for servicing, only to have them met with derision. Backed by bassist Stephen Vaughan and drummer Robert Ellis (who made a ’96 UK LP as Spleen), the singer/guitarist set these uncomfortable emotional tone poems to loping slide-marked settings that range from the whirlwind that is “Sheela-Na-Gig” to sparer, more open landscapes of tremulous bass and serrated guitar. The album is a corrosive — but somehow beautiful —portrayal of female trouble on a scale infrequently seen attached to musical forces so controlled.
Dry‘s dramatic power disguised something Harvey already understood: that the somewhat received bleakness of its analysis of sex was a dead end. Harvey retrenched. Her work, she said repeatedly in interviews, wasn’t so serious: it was constructed, she said, through two key inspirational axes — the blues and humor. Why weren’t people getting the joke? But neither of these are much in evidence in Dry, or, truth be told, Rid of Me. “Recorded” by Steve Albini, the second album is problematic. The musical impassivity of Dry turns utterly unforgiving here, all of its beauty and grandeur banished. The resulting harshness — emotionally and aurally — is authentically transgressive, but with an ideological purity that pushes the album to the edges of the impersonal on one side and the cartoony on the other. Harvey’s idea of humor comes out as sardonicism, and her ideas devolve into slogans. Some are pretty provocative — “Rub ‘Til It Bleeds,” for example — but others (“Douse hair with gasoline”) fall flat. Matters aren’t helped by Harvey’s consistently over-the-top vocalizing, which includes wailing, whispering, distorted growling and so forth; it all serves to distance the singer from her songs. Even a cover of Dylan’s “Highway 61 Revisited” — whose themes nicely foreshadow the almost biblical tales of love and horror Harvey would offer on her third studio album — seems somehow off.
During Dry‘s ascendance, tapes of Harvey’s demos for the record circulated: they’re not so much revelatory as a striking testimony to how fully the then-21-year-old had conceptualized her debut. Shortly after Rid of Me she offered the second album’s home version, including a few unreleased songs, as 4-Track Demos. Even throwaways like “Driving” show an easy fluency with rock forms, but the stripped-down recordings also expose the slightness of some songs.
On To Bring You My Love (produced by Harvey, Flood and John Parish with a new collective of backing musicians), she reaches at least part of the elemental balance she’s sought. While this is definitely not a comedy record, the blues, particularly, seep out of the record’s pores, from the growled vocal litanies and crawling bass to the abrasively carnal expostulations that give the album its thrills and chills. With a great deal of violence and no little aplomb, she settles the issue of sex through the simple expedient of expropriating male terminology — and its rampant libido — whole. The result is an album-length genderfuck of no little punch — lines like “You oughta hear my long snake moan” are designed with that in mind. Harvey’s not trying to plead a case, make a point or convert believers: she’s just clearing territory, and it turns out that such personal lebensraum is necessary just on the basis of the title song, as epic and menacing a statement of sexual potency as has ever been heard in rock or any of its source genres — and, yes, that is saying something.
Harvey’s attempts to distance herself from the perfervid early-’90s female star-making machinery has ranged from the glamourless nudity on her record covers to the joyless party dress she adopted for Rid of Me-period shows. For the artwork of To Bring You My Love and its subsequent tour, she reinvented herself as a garish chanteuse, all slinky dresses, high heels and exaggerated eyelashes, and went on the road backed with a peerless group of avant-garde sessionmen, including Tom Waits henchman Joe Gore and Pere Ubu’s Eric Drew Feldman. At points on the record and during these shows there’s a bit of evidence that Harvey is an art-rocker, with all the potential for disaster the tag has unfortunately come to imply. Harvey may yet turn into a figure of David Bowie-like pretentiousness, but for now she’s displaying an imposing union of ambition and ability that few contemporary recording artists can touch.
Harvey’s full-length collaboration with John Parish finds her writing lyrics to his music, although Dance Hall at Louse Point also includes a cover of the Leiber/Stoller-penned 1969 Peggy Lee hit, “Is That All There Is?” A decided oddity — of interest to fans only, for the most part — this creepy side project has its moments, although Harvey still walks that nervy art-rock tightrope with her deconstructed faux blues. Arguably, she just gets away with it too, on such subterranean (Cave-like?) experiments as “Urn With Dead Flowers in a Drained Pool” and the fractured, arid “Rope Bridge Crossing” as well as the album’s wiry apotheosis, “Civil War Correspondent”.
More than three years separated To Bring You My Love from the next full-fledged PJ Harvey release, Is This Desire?, and the musical gulf proved to be just as wide as the chronological. The swamp stomp swagger and gutter-guttural skank of previous works is almost completely sublimated on this quieter, more exploratory album. Taking her cue from such contemporaries as Radiohead, Harvey attempts to incorporate electronic elements and drum loops in a laudably courageous move away from guitar-based rock — with mixed results. The emotional outpouring is present, but the sound is often muddy and even tentative in places. Perhaps surprisingly, given their accustomed passion, PJ Harvey don’t pitch themselves headlong into this experiment, and the result is needlessly smudged. For every turgidly murky track (“The Sky Lit Up,” “Joy,” “My Beautiful Leah”) there’s another that manages to balance passion with a fresh approach (the exuberantly rhythmic “A Perfect Day Elise,” the delightful and shiveringly wrong “Electric Light”) — but there remains an overall sense of Is This Desire? as over-mixed and under-written.
In addition to the electronics, Harvey plays around vocally, with whispered lyrics, unusual harmonies and the more familiar banshee-wails texturing many of the songs. When her voice is free to move and to breathe, flashes of beauty glint from the walls of this impenetrable labyrinth — in the unexpectedly melodic piano and sweetly understated chorus vocals of “The Garden” and the wistfully elegiac “The River.” While “Angelene” opens with a kind of yearning promise that airily seeks to transcend its own pessimism (“Dear God, life ain’t kind / People getting born and dying / But I’ve heard there’s joy untold / Lays open like a road in front of me”), the title track finale manages to incorporate everything good about the album — subtle neo-blues-gospel intro, compelling spare narrative, minimal clutter, building gradually to the querulous query, “Is this desire / Enough enough / To lift us higher?”
Stories From the City, Stories From the Sea answers one of those “What If” alternative-reality type questions: how would PJ Harvey sound happy? Answer: like a lot of other rock bands. The production is much crisper here than on its immediate predecessor, but there are too many generic hard-driving tracks for it to breathe in the rarefied air of Rid of Me or To Bring You My Love. The album’s tension quivers between Harvey’s contemplative side (as represented by her home in Dorset) and the wild excitable sexuality of the big city (in this case New York). To that end, Patti Smith’s vocal repertoire is shamelessly invoked on the upbeat and exhilarating “Good Fortune” (Harvey has never shied away from mimicry). There is something eerily prescient about the number of artists who recorded paeans to NYC in the months leading up to 9/11/01, and PJ Harvey is no exception. “Kamikaze” with its talk of “10,000 willing pilots flying” requires no elaboration, but also “You Said Something” opens with “On a rooftop in Brooklyn” and closes with “You said something / That I’ve never forgotten.” If To Bring You My Love was Harvey wrestling with a mythical old America, Stories From the City is her attempt to assimilate its often ugly modern incarnation. There are tales of pistols, tales of guns, tales of throwing things from tall buildings, tales of “heroin and speed / genocide and suicide, of syphilis and greed” (“The Whores Hustle and the Hustlers Whore”) and much of it goes by in a manic blur — which could very well be the point. But there are also — tonally if not always thematically — stories from the sea. Thom Yorke croons his weary falsetto all over “This Mess We’re In.” On this oddly bipolar album, the manic explosions are all sound and empty fury whereas their depressive counterparts lack much of the defiant raw sexuality or genuine gut-level trauma-drama of previous work. Admittedly, it’s a measured step away from art rock, but it’s also a little too close to artless rock for comfort.
Polly Jean Harvey has been given short shrift by those who expected her to continue picking her strange fruits from the fertile blues tree alone. With each passing album, PJ Harvey, the band, have promised an increasingly more eclectic raiding of music’s hallowed vaults and dusty side roads (with all the requisite irreverence that entails), and in doing so have largely delivered the goods, notwithstanding some inevitable missteps.