Polly Jean Harvey is one of the most unique, talented, and generally lauded figures in alternative rock of the last 25 years… but she’s far from one of the most popular. Even from the early stages of her career, PJ has intensely rallied critics and music fans with her imaginative, dynamic, and ever-changing catalog. While she has been widely recognized for her outstanding work (she’s the only artist to ever win the prestigious Mercury Prize twice,) she has never quite hit a commercial stride. While that’s possibly by design, with only two top-10 albums in her native UK to date and no top-20 singles, she may not have a shortage of loyal fans, but it’s pretty clear that plenty of people are missing out.
This is an artist that takes time to really get to know. There’s no crash course that’s ever going to accurately paint a picture of a career as delicately nuanced and intricate as her’s; you really have to find your niche before everything else falls into place. See, PJ Harvey has never repeated herself, not once. “Alternative Rock” is such a broad description that puts an umbrella over almost anything that radio may or may not reject. While she undeniably should be placed on that spectrum, her exact positioning has changed with each record. Every detail is seemingly specific to the album she’s crafting, from the instrumentation, lyrical content, vocal delivery, production quality, even her physical appearance; experiencing a new PJ Harvey record is a jarring experience, initially. Those who latched on early in her career and have held on through her many twists and turns had the luxury of nourishing themselves completely with every project she’s thrown their way; playing catch up may be somewhat arduous, but it’s insanely rewarding.
Regardless, PJ Harvey is an artist you should know. She’s a unique kind of legend that has inspired fans, musicians, and critics all over the world, cranking out some of the greatest albums (or music, period) of the last 25 years while managing to evade the unforgiving clutches of the general public. Granted, she’s not going to appeal to everyone, but her acclaim alone is enough to really warrant giving her a shot… even if this particular “shot” is more like a “chug.” There’s no other conceivable way to digest her career than by going album-by-album, but I’m not going to go chronologically. While she’s never particularly had a misstep, diving in to some records before others might thwart the process… and believe me, this is a process. Now, if you are looking for a quick “PollyJean101,” just start HERE and allow certain things to stick out… you may just have to repeat the process a few times.
STORIES FROM THE CITY, STORIES FROM THE SEA (2000)
For those starting from scratch, this is where you have to begin. Stories… is easily her most accessible record (“accessible” being a relative term, of course,) and remains one of her most appreciated. This is a comparatively polished, tactful record, with a lot of hard-hitting tracks, many of them actually uplifting. Conversely, there’s a general sense of beauty throughout, but in a way that’s far less menacing than her previous (and later) works. For a point of reference, the incomparable Thom Yorke (Radiohead) participates on three tracks here, namely the incredible “This Mess We’re In,” a rare proper vocal duet for PJ. Stories… features some of her most endearing singles, from the catchy and uplifting “Good Fortune,” to the punchy “This Is Love,” to more beautiful works like “A Place Called Home” and “You Said Something.” However, it’s the album’s hidden gems that resonate the strongest, particularly the bombastic opener, “Big Exit” and the chillingly gorgeous penultimate track, “Horses In My Dreams.” This record is probably the safest starting point for exploring her career, but it’s certainly still a challenging collection of songs that shortens the gap between of beauty and intensity.
TO BRING YOU MY LOVE (1995)
After two well received albums, PJ’s third studio release, To Bring You My Love, is widely considered her breakthrough. The first in a fruitful production relationship with the legendary Flood and singer-songwriter John Parish, the record is a lush collection of songs that features an almost-possessed protagonist at the helm. Tackling themes of loss and pining, and the insanity that comes with them, Polly pushes her the vigor in her voice to the brink, often basking in the hollows of her lower register. From the intense rumble that drives the intense, but restrained title track, to more explosive tracks like “Meet Ze Monsta“ and “Long Snake Moan,” to the audible desperation in pleading singles “C’mon Billy“ and “Send His Love To Me,” To Bring You My Love features an unique landscape of material that is both disturbing and captivating. Contrastingly, “Down By The Water,” easily her most recognized work, sees Polly Jean step into character as a murderous mother who lacks almost any remorse in her delivery. Haunting? Yes, but incredibly powerful. This record is incredibly challenging, but it’s an undeniable sonic masterpiece and it never gets old.
LET ENGLAND SHAKE (2011)
Despite being her latest release, Let England Shake is one of the first PJ Harvey experiences you should have. Almost instantaneously, the record was recognized as one of her greatest works. PJ steps into the position of a first-person narrator, detailing stories of war, death, and destruction, and doesn’t shy away from sarcasm and irony in her delivery. The way she adopts an unstable child-like voice, rendering her almost unrecognizable at first listen, is a remarkably powerful vehicle to bring these tracks to life. Paired with the unique instrumentation that sees her pulling out the autoharp and saxophone only solidifies the album’s mastery and PJ Harvey’s genius. While many of the tracks have a sweeping sense of beauty, particularly “In The Dark Places,” “The Glorious Land,” and the chilling “On Battleship Hill,” there’s a brilliant juxtaposition of faux-jubilation that seers through songs like lead single “The Words That Maketh Murder” and the title track (build around an interpolation of the swing classic “Istanbul.”) The album’s most noteworthy moments are its two most unique, the challenging and uncomfortable “England,” and the goosebump-inducing “Written On The Forehead.” Despite its dynamic, this is actually an easy album to latch onto.
The next stop on our journey is at the beginning. PJ Harvey’s fearless debut album, Dry, may not have epic implications along the lines of, say, Joy Division’s Unknown Pleasures, but there is nothing amateur or reserved about this collection. The genius of this album is clearly rooted in its creators uncanny ability to craft a unique alternative rock song. It may not seem very extreme up front, but considering the context of its timing and remembering that all of her other material had yet to be birthed, this record is a herald. Listening to it feels like a snapshot in time of one of alternative rock’s most exciting renaissances, and much like most of the era’s greatest material, it has aged brilliantly. At its most audacious, Dry gives us tracks like “Sheela-Na-Gig,” a scathing whirlwind of bitter sarcasm, and the charismatic, folksy “Plants and Rags;” at its most straightforward, we see explosive epics like “Dress“ and “Victory” and deep, blues-tinged howls like “Happy and Bleeding” and “Water.” Through it all, PJ Harvey demonstrates her unwillingness to conform, but she earns our trust and the payoff is huge.
RID OF ME (1992)
It really makes sense to experience PJ Harvey’s first two albums in succession. Her sophomore LP, Rid Of Me, is a huge departure from Dry in many ways, and juxtaposing them back-to-back really enhances their best qualities. Where as her debut relies on her intuition, this record feels far more ambitious, if not downright insane. The tracks are so incredibly raw and unhinged that many of them come off as practically abrasive and exhausting, but her vigor and captivation leave us feeling fulfilled. While seething feminist anthems (namely “Man-Size,” presented in two versions, and “50ft Queenie“) remain the backbone, it’s a bluesy possession more terrifying than anything Robert Johnson could have concocted that remains its soul. Most notably, the opener/title track, “Rid Of Me,” is a tug-of-war of emotion that climaxes in the immortal “Lick my legs, I’m on fire!” Polly Jean owns the “mentally-ill ex-lover” role so flawlessly, it’s actually startling. While she never waivers, still still manages to delicately inject moments of less (or controlled) frenzy such as the gorgeous “Missed,” the southern-rock tinged “Dry” (yes, sharing the same title as her previous album,) the energetic “Yuri-G,” and the “Hendrix-Goes-Grunge” closer, “Ecstasy.” Oh yeah, and she sneaks in a Bob Dylan cover.
UH HUH HER (2004)
In another perfect juxtaposition, released over a decade after Rid Of Me, the self-recorded, self-produced Uh Huh Her truly enhances the nuances of the former, and vice versa. The only real similarity between the two records is their stark simplicity that still leaves us wanting for nothing, but it’s an important parallel to draw; it’s further proof that PJ Harvey has never repeated herself. Uh Her Her is a delicate record, recorded entirely by Harvey herself sans a touch of drums, baring an even vaster contrast to its direct predecessor Stories…, a grander, more collaborative work. Tracks like “The Slow Drug” and “The Desperate Kingdom Of Love“ are stripped down to almost nothing, while “The Life and Death Of Mr. Badmouth” and “Who The Fuck?,” for example, feel fully enhanced. The album’s best moments are the tracks that sit somewhere in between, though. “It’s You,” “Pocket Knife,” and especially “You Come Through“ really find that middle ground and relish in its divinity. By the time the gorgeous closer “The Darker Days Of Me and Him“ comes to an end, in a far less challenging way than Rid Of Me, we’re left feeling exhausted, but complete.
IS THIS DESIRE? (1998)
While I maintain that Is This Desire? is one of her greatest works, if not her greatest, period, this is definitely a record that you can’t dive into right away. Arguably the most experimental work in PJ Harvey’s catalog, linearly speaking, this is a incongruous change of pace that is simultaneously hard to grasp and effortlessly engulfing. The record relies on restraint as its main mechanism, which certainly becomes frustrating at times, but leaves a lot of space for the songs to breathe. At the album’s most conventional, she manages to halt us in our tracks before we get too comfortable. Opener “Angelene” never quite explodes the way she leads us to believe, and her closest thing to a rock offering, “The Sky Lit Up“ doesn’t even clock in at a full two minutes. On the other side of the same spectrum, “Catherine” and “Electric Light” are sparse, but amongst the most gorgeous and captivating moments in her catalog. Tracks like lead single and true stand out “A Perfect Day Elise,” “Joy,” and “No Girl So Sweet“ become so chaotic and stretched, they border on unlistenable, but end up becoming masterpieces. She’s so relentless, that when she throws us a bone, it comes in the form of haunting art pieces like “The Wind,” “The Garden“ and “The River.”
WHITE CHALK (2007)
White Chalk is a challenge for anyone to get through at first, proving that no matter what, you’ll never figure PJ Harvey out. This album is almost entirely stripped of guitar and percussion, and is instead built around an intentionally slightly out of tune piano, an instrument she taught herself to play to record the album. Vocally, Polly Jean chooses to unleash the haunting vigor of her upper register, expanding her dynamic range to inexplicable measures. The tracks themselves are eerie, most lacking any kind of structure, and become even more creepy with the Victorian imagery PJ adopted (and never broke character.) Still, White Chalk is a soaring success. Opener “The Devil“ is a bonafide, awe inspiring masterpiece, while lead single “When Under Ether” actually feels like sedation, and standout “Silence“ builds itself into a restrained climax that is inexplicably euphoric. Most of the tracks conform to this mold, but she throws in enough variance to make it a worthwhile listen. The title track and “Broken Harp,” for example, sit the piano out. By the time the closer, “The Mountain” a menacing, if not downright terrifying piece that ends with PJ screaming at the peak of her register, comes to and end, the listener in undeniably in an altered state. When done right, White Chalk is a beautiful experience, but you need to be ready.
4 TRACK DEMOS (1993)
This may not be an actual studio album, but 4-Track Demos is a worthwhile release to give a whirl. While it may seem like a boring collection of demos from her Rid Of Me sessions, they provide a rare, albeit early and very controlled, insight into her creative process. Needless to say, all of these tracks were recorded and produced by PJ Harvey, herself, which really exemplifies her inherent genius. Featuring 8 tracks that made the final album in finished form and an additional 6 that didn’t make the cut, the familiar songs take on a whole new life and the unheard ones leave it up to us to guess what might have been. The stand outs here include the amazing incarnation of “Ecstasy” as well as the surprisingly intricate “Yuri-G” that may be totally stripped down, but packs a lot of punch for only 4-tracks. Of the non-album tracks, “Hardly Wait” really caters to the desperation in her vocals, while “M-Bike,” while clearly still sounding unfinished, feels like more like a live session recording than a demo, and remains an exciting track. Unlike most collections of demos that saturate box sets and re-release packages, 4-Track Demos is actually a brilliant stand-alone release that is so good that it actually has just as much mass appeal as a studio album.
DANCE HALL AT LOUSE POINT (1996) /
A WOMAN A MAN WALKED BY (2009)
Once you have given PJ Harvey’s solo albums a good run though, you should move on to her collaborations with John Parish. These releases feel more like experiments and side projects for Polly Jean than anything else considering the pair have been long time collaborators (Parish has contributed production and instrumentation to most of her solo records.) For these particular albums, John handled the songwriting and most of the instrumentation while PJ wrote the lyrics and provided all of the vocals. While they don’t necessarily hold up to the quality of her solo projects, they have some great material. For Dance Hall At Louse Point, highlights include the stripped down, mostly-acoustic single “That Was My Veil,” the exciting “Urn With Dead Flowers In A Drained Pool,” and the clear standout, “Taut,” a sinister frenzy that features Harvey’s most possessed vocal delivery to date; it feels ripped right out of a horror movie. On A Woman A Man Walked By, the production is far more polished and the tracks themselves far less ballsy. However, they certainly still pack some punch, namely the energetic punk-like “Pig Will Not” that ends with a much-needed full minute cool down (a good third of the track.) The strangely mainstream lead single “Black Hearted Love” is also an incredible standout here. These records are definitely worth giving a shot, but only if you feel like you can put them in the right context.
NEED A CRASH COURSE?
Ok, I get it. This is definitely a lot of music to throw at you at once… it’s worth it, but it is a lot. Here’s a more reasonable place to start. I recommend shuffle.