From a Dorset sheep farm to high priestess of alternative tunage, PJ Harvey has spent the past three decades showing the boys, girls and anyone with working ears how it’s done. Erupting from the alt boom of the early 90s, Harvey has willfully evolved with every musical statement, accumulating an MBE, two Mercury Awards and an army of loyal fans in the process.
This week sees the release of ‘The Hope Six Demolition Project’, her ninth album proper (not including her two shared with John Parish) and sees her continue on a political slant first started on 2011’s ‘Let England Shake’. There’s no better time to dive into her world of war, blood and disappointing men for a retrospective wander.
- - -
- - -
“It’s alright you can love her, and you can love me at the same time...”
Fuzzed out bass, atmospheric drumming and vocals practically dripping with longing, PJ’s debut impressed both listeners and critics from the off. While other, even classic albums of the period have started to date, ‘Dry’s stripped back production and raw intensity sounds as fresh today as it did twenty five years ago. With numbers such as ‘Dress’ and ‘Sheela-Na’Gig’ Harvey pulls no punches, bringing a much-needed feminine take on those trying to navigate their early 20s and a cruel world. Ending up on Kurt Cobain’s ‘50 Best Album’ list and garnering her many ‘best new’ accolades that year, Harvey had created a big noise and an extremely clear statement. She was gonna do things her way.
- - -
'Rid Of Me' (1993)
Landing exactly one year after the release of ‘Dry’ success had clearly not dulled Harvey’s songwriting, rather the strains of heavy touring, relationships and academia pushing her to breaking point. The resulting fourteen tracks captured by producer Steve Albini is essentially a cathartic process, a very angry beast somewhat more moody and focused than its younger sibling. While ‘50ft Queenie’ is out-an-out baller filled with huge riffs the rest of the album truly wades in dark night of the soul.
‘Rub It Till It Bleeds’ and ‘Man Size’ doesn’t make the most comfortable listening but a sure as hell grabs your attention. Cocky innuendo is for those lacking fortitude after all. ‘Me-Jane’, ‘Ecstasy’ and the Dylan referencing ‘Highway ’61 Revisited’ reveal a growing fascination with American indebted noise and subject. An emotive force of nature.
- - -
'To Bring You My Love' (1995)
Taking a wise break after releasing two albums, a demo compilation, and seeing the disintegration of the original PJ Harvey trio in just two years, T.B.Y.M.L sees a rejuvenated Harvey working with a new sonic palette. Her first partnering with long time collaborators John Parish and Flood, this collection sees a more textured approach to her songwriting. The songs still retain plenty of bite but no longer rebel against love and partnership, rather wishing to actually court it.
‘C’mon Billy’ is a fragile lament for a lost lover, strings gently backing Harvey’s bold acoustic chords. ‘Send His Love To Me’ follows suite while ‘Long Snake Moan’ stands as one of Harvey’s best album cuts. There’s some very ‘of the time’ industrially tinged production in places but in no way does this distract from yet another applauded effort. Still, the less said about her ‘Joan Crawford on acid’ look she adopted during this phase the better.
- - -
'Is This Desire?' (1998)
Electronics, keys and soundscapes appear for this, arguably Harvey’s most hypnotic release. The more simplified guitar assault of the first two albums is truly left here as folk and blues is interweaving with elements of trip-hop and much soothing synth work. Flood and Parish return respectively as well as The Bad Seed’s Mick Harvey adding some fine bass work all over. With the majority of the album written after Harvey’s split with the aforementioned’s bandleader at the time, there’s a real sense of melancholy at the core of all these songs.
Harvey herself said it was the hardest record she’d ever made but also the one she was most proud of. With the haunting ‘The River’, ‘Angelene’ and ‘The Wind’ it’s easy to see why. As a collection it stands a bit off-kilter and some of the more experimental moments, such as ‘Joy’, do become tiring. Still, it stands as an album full of bold ideas and continues Harvey’s wise journey away from the just another angry voice rocking a guitar in a scene now overflowing with imitators.
- - -
'Stories From The City, Stories From The Sea' (2000)
Entering her thirties with a swagger and a fresh new look, Harvey’s fifth release is a breath of fresh air after a decade often spent swimming in beautiful sadness. Big, bold and brash, it’s easy to see why ‘Stories…’ is her most successful album, bagging her that first Mercury prize the following year.
The cover alone, Harvey at night decked out in shades while strolling through New York reinforces the ‘girl about town/on the warpath’ air the songs carry. ‘Big Exit’ and ‘This Is Love’ provide the most accessible hits of her career, while the remarkable Thom Yorke duet ‘This Mess We’re In’ shows that even when she’s going for a lighter step PJ can’t sell out.
- - -
'Uh Huh Her' (2004)
Back to earthier roots here with Harvey playing every instrument, producing a intimate combination of previously tackled styles in the process. While lacking some of the intent and single-mindedness of her previous work ‘Uh Huh Her’ is still overflowing with great material, bouncing from minute long ditty’s to licks that Josh Homme had wish he’d written.
‘The Letter’s stoner groove demonstrates the latter while the enchanting ‘You Come Through’ reveals glimpses of what was to come. Described as her most fragile album by the lady herself this stands as a necessary transitional step, and any artists with longevity and a sense of adventure has those. Unfortunately for us they don’t all sound this good.
- - -
'White Chalk' (2007)
All hail the shadow queen! Goodbye rock combo, hello antique dresses and wistful piano. Like a spectre drifting across the country fields she so adores, ‘White Chalk’ sees Harvey howl in a higher register about skeletons, keys and all manner of gothic standards. This daring leap into arguably her ‘second’ artistic phase caused both shock and excitement upon release. Parish and Flood return to help weave Harvey’s new distinctly English sound, zither, harmonica and banjo all adding buckets of old timey goodness to proceedings.
The lyrics are often still as raw as a freshly grazed knee, but are now buffeted by an ethereal air. While much of her career could be branded as affectingly spooky this is akin to your mad aunty escaping the attic and whispering her visions in your ear.
- - -
'Let England Shake' (2011)
Using the foundations laid with ‘White Chalk’ Harvey spent two and half years emerged in poetry and war to produce this, her strange love/hate letter to England. Her first overtly political record is made only more fascinating by the new lightness of touch in which she delivers the music. The effects of two collaborative albums with John Parish are felt here, with Parish given more vocal duties, instrumentation and the duos longstanding musical chemistry coming off in spades.
Like a time-capsule unearthed to lay judgment on 21st century Britain the album deftly shows that you don’t need power chords and screams to make a statement. From the opening titular number’s brisk skiffle to the semi-religious tones of ‘On Battleship Hill’, this is Harvey’s most striking and beguiling album, and quite possibly her best.
- - -
Words: Sam Walker-Smart
PJ Harvey's new album 'The Hope Six Demolition Project' will be released on April 15th.