It’s PJ Harvey’s birthday today. We love her, so to celebrate we’ve dug up this handy buyer’s guide from the archives. Enjoy
New to PJ Harvey? Here’s our guide to her wonderful back catalogue…
I can remember precisely when I first heard PJ Harvey. It was the summer holidays of 2002, I was 13, and inside flicking through music channels. On MTV2, a woman clad in a fringe-sleeved white suit was striding about a studio, whipping her black hair around, thrashing a guitar, her red lips dominating her pale face, and pouting, snarling and howling about being possessed by delirious carnal desire.
In three minutes, she unwrote every manipulative “Girl Power”-laden trope of femininity that I’d believed in up until then. ‘This Is Love’ might now be almost 12 years old, but Polly’s blunt opening admission, “I can’t believe that life’s so complex / When I just wanna sit here and watch you undress“, hasn’t lost a speck of its prurient allure.
After buying ‘Stories From The City, Stories From The Sea’, then having the bejesus scared out of me on finding a cheap copy of the abrasive ‘4-Track Demos’, I soon realised that, as NME Editor Krissi Murison enthused of Polly’s receiving of the Outstanding Contribution To Music award, she always takes an “uncompromising and individual … approach to music.”
If you’ve read any reviews of records by records by Anna Calvi, Bat For Lashes, Yeah Yeah Yeahs, CocoRosie (we could go on), you’ll probably have noticed PJ Harvey cited as an influence on their sound.
Most of the time, those comparisons are total hokum (Florence bloody wishes she sounded like PJ Harvey), but what’s telling is that Polly’s name alone has become shorthand for exciting, different, profound work made by women who pay little heed to the traditional roles that are still sadly the norm for ladies in music.
When it comes to PJ Harvey, there is no norm. If you’ve never investigated her back catalogue before, then here’s our guide to the five key albums that show off the many faces and bodies she’s inhabited, followed by a Spotify playlist of her greatest moments…
On the release of her debut album, we called ‘Dry’ “a crossover point possessing natural songwriting and scorching guitar noise.” The cover depicts her lips pressed closely, almost crudely, against glass, and on record, her unfettered Dorset accent scrapes just as uncomfortably close to the listener’s ear, an ear already battered and bruised by Slint-like heavy thrashing.
‘Dress’ sees her pounding through a sarcastically nerve-wracked account of the implications and expectations of wearing the aforementioned garment to try and win male attention; and ‘Sheela-Na-Gig’ sees her caw and howl about a man who refuses her on account of her full-frontal sexuality, namechecking a Celtic fertility goddess, and using nauseating women’s mag phrases like “I’m going to wash that man right out of my hair” to ridicule the whole charade of seduction. It’s undoubtedly up there with the greatest debuts of all time.
Sign up for the newsletter
To Bring You My Love (1995)
Considered to be Polly’s breakthrough album, it was here that she shied away from the castigating, seen-to-be man-hating shrieks and moans of her earlier work, instead moving into more bluesy territory – the hacking Beefheart variety, not the Duffy type (perish the thought) – and encompassing loss and lament with a psychotic undertone.
She was yet to start donning character masks as explicitly as she did from her next album, 1998’s ‘Is This Desire?’, but by removing the confines of more traditional pronunciation from her voice and kicking it into grittier, purposefully unpretty shapes, her unwillingness to stay in one artistic spot began to writhe free.
Stories From The City, Stories From The Sea (2000)
Saying “I want it to be my beautiful, sumptuous, lovely piece of work,” ‘Stories…’ was the absolute flip-side to anything Polly had done before. Hi-fi, glossy production, massive choruses, a stridence that raged with pride and wonder at the cities (New York) and sea (Dorset coast) she sung over, rather than the overwhelming, nervy rancour of her previous work; it won her the Mercury Music Prize, sold a million, and persuaded Radiohead’s Thom Yorke, guesting on ‘This Mess We’re In’, to sing “Night and day / I dream of making love / To you now baby“. Phwoar!
Read our original review
White Chalk (2007)
As you might have noticed just from reading this post, Polly certainly knows how to terrify her listener. But perhaps her most disquieting album of all is this, which saw her pare the instrumentation down to skeletal, bitterly frosty piano, and raise her voice to a desperately sad, piercingly high voice that pondered on surrendering to death in the white chalk hills of her home country, liaisons with darkness, and possessing tales that saw her white-clad character chillingly undergo an abortive process.
Read our original review
Let England Shake (2011)
It’s rare that an artist of great longevity’s newest album lives up to their career-defining touchstones, but then ‘Let England Shake’ is itself a rare beast. It’s centred around war – the violence, the human loss, the physical and psychological ravaging of lands worldwide – yet it’s not polemical or po-faced.
Made with her enduring band of collaborators, it still makes another sonic leap – recorded in an old Dorset church, and centred around the autoharp. You can read Mike Williams’ spectacular review of the record online from Monday (Feb 14), but in the meantime, US radio station NPR are streaming it in full here.