Polly’s back in the studio, working on her follow-up to 2011’s lauded ‘Let England Shake’. Fans flocked from across Europe to see the new album being pieced together last month, after the Dorset-born songwriter announced she’d be flinging open the doors on her creative process this time around by letting fans watch her at work on new songs, in a glass box at London’s Somerset House. As the wait goes on for album number nine, here’s a look back at her discography to date – ranked in order of greatness…
White Chalk (2007)
To have to rank any of PJ Harvey’s album last on a list is painful, and with White Chalk in particular, it feels like one is doing it a great disservice. Never one to rest on her laurels, Harvey eschewed her guitar to play songs written almost entirely on the piano, a new experience for her; she told The Wire at the time that learning an instrument from scratch “liberates the imagination”, and so it transpired; White Chalk is a white gothic soundscape, gossamery and dreamlike, often beautiful and often strange, it’s almost always piano and rarely if ever forte. Opener ‘The Devil’ is unexpectedly jaunty, though always with an undercurrent of menace. ‘Dear Darkness’ is spacious and ambient, while the single ‘When Under Ether’ puts the listener in mind of someone coming around from an operation. Many have interpreted it to be about someone being revived following an abortion, though Harvey denies this. While it might be eighth in this list, make no mistake, White Chalk is a beautiful and arresting listen.
Production wise, Dry does what it says on the tin. It was recorded in Polly’s native Yeovil with Rob Ellis on drums and Steve Vaughn on bass, and it has that frenetic energy that only recording novices can truly make. The singer said years later that she put everything into her debut as she thought it might be the only chance she’d get to record an album. Thankfully Too Pure picked it up, as did John Peel, and so too did the Americans, with Rolling Stone naming the then-22-year-old songwriter of the year. Kurt Cobain was a self-proclaimed fan too, and it’s easy to see why. Dry is intelligent, intense and very raw indeed; on ‘Oh My Lover’ you can even hear her Westcountry accent breaking through. ‘Dress’ became Harvey’s first immediate classic, while ‘Sheela-na-gig’ promotes strong, evocative and often feminist imagery; Sheela-na-gigs are figurative grotesques, mainly found on Romanesque churches oddly enough, that are known for displaying their vulvas. Harvey pithily borrows the line “I’m gonna wash that man right out of my hair” from South Pacific to show what she thinks of the idiot accusing her of being an “exhibitionist”.
To Bring You My Love (1995)
The 1995 album is technically the first solo record, given that Dry and Rid of Me were credited to the PJ Harvey Trio (subsequent pressings are credited just to PJ Harvey). Drummer Rob Ellis has continued to work with the singer throughout her career, while To Bring You My Love saw the emergence of two figures who’ve loomed large in her story, namely Flood and John Parish (the latter of whom she recording two collaborative albums with; 1996’s Dance Hall at Louse Point and 2009’s A Woman A Man Walked By). To Bring You My Love is almost a coming of age album, and bristles with confidence. Broadly speaking, it’s Harvey’s most earthy record, deeply influenced by the blues of the Deep South, and unsurprisingly it became her first record to crack the Billboard top 40 album charts. Much of this success can be attributed to MTV and the heavy rotational play of ‘Down By The Water’, a song that widely resonated and was a success commercially, despite its rather grisly infanticide subject matter.
Uh Huh Her (2004)
The follow up to Stories From The City is strangely forsaken in the narrative regarding PJ Harvey’s truly great albums, but Uh Huh Her is great nonetheless. Recorded over a two-year period between Dorset and Los Angeles, the self-produced record is her most DIY, discounting of course 1993’s 4-Track Demos which came out after Rid Of Me. The Californian detail is perhaps the most important; it’s is taught and bruising in some instances and intimate and tender in others, and you can almost always feel the Golden State sunshine bearing down on her face and melting the dashboard as she belts through the desert in a pickup truck. Perhaps that’s a result of the cover art, which features a selfy from within a vehicle. There are personal shots within the sleeve, and inside too are notes to self that include: “Too normal? Too PJH?”, indicative of Harvey’s ongoing interest in demystifying the process from creation to final output. Recording In Progress is the logical conclusion to that desire, as she seeks to take away the smoke and mirrors and reveal what’s really going on. How possible that actually can be, even when fans are there in person – noses pressed to the glass – trying to drink it all in, is debatable. Respect for pursuing the ambition anyway.
Rid of Me (1993)
From the very outset, the naked opening strumming of the title track, you get a feeling in your water that Rid of Me is not only going to be fantastic, but that it’s also going to be fantastically raw. Recorded in 1993, this first offering for longtime label Island undoubtedly consumes the grunge energy that was around at that time, though the atavistic howling on ‘Legs’ and the incessant pain of ‘Missed’ are pure Polly Jean. Interestingly Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds released a breakup album in 1987 inspired by Cave’s uncoupling from Harvey; The Boatman’s Call was all about making sense of loss through solitude and introspection, whereas Rid Of Me as breakup album is the other side of the coin, an anguished, tortured, tearing-through-clothes-with-scissors and beating your head against a wall painful. ‘Mansize Sextet’, with its Stravinskian violin strokes and dissonant cellos dragging along the floor, is positively deranged. Rid of Me possesses a vital, feral, sexual kind of energy that few albums can even get close to, and it’ll surprise few that much of it was recorded with Steve Albini who always brings a certain je ne sais quoi to proceedings. Harvey also released 4-Track Demos soon after, which mainly featured these songs and some other unreleased tracks in their embryonic form, and while some have proclaimed them as going deeper than what’s on offer here, one is perhaps better off looking at them as an accompaniment. Again, the two together exhibit the process of creation from bare bones to mixed down product, a fascinating insight into the production of wonderful music.
Stories From The City, Stories From The Sea (2001)
The tunes! The ambition! The slick production! For a long time Stories From The City, Stories From The Sea became PJ Harvey’s calling card, and in many ways it also became a misrepresentation of who she is as an artist such was its success, but then there are worse albatrosses. Patti Smith has undoubtedly been an influence throughout Polly’s career, and on tracks like lead single ‘Good Fortune’ and the excellent opener ‘Big Exit’, that influence is writ largest of all (and on ‘Horses In My Dreams’ where you wonder if she’s talking about the album or the animal). New York – so synonymous with Smith – features heavily on this record, and on ‘This Is Love’, that other quintessential Manhattan band Blondie can almost be detected reverberating through the floorboards. Another heavyweight figure, Thom Yorke, makes an appearance on three tracks, one of which – the gorgeous ‘The Mess We’re In’ – he duets on. If Stories… set out to be a straightforward pop album then it’s certainly more labyrinthine and complex than that, but the desired effect to reach beyond the core fanbase was executed so successfully that it must have made her think carefully about what to wish for in future. The album won Harvey her first Mercury Award, which was only tempered by the fact the ceremony took place on September 11th 2001, the achievement somewhat overshadowed by events in her beloved city across the pond.
Is This Desire? (1998)
If crude labelling is your thing, then Is This Desire? is certainly PJ Harvey’s funkiest album, though such a description wouldn’t even begin to represent the layers of nuance here. Harvey’s relationship with the US has always been a symbiotic one where she takes its influences and in turn influences plenty of artists back, and on Is This Desire? she takes the unusual step of utilising beats on tracks like ‘Perfect Day Elise’, ‘The Wind’ and ‘The Garden’’ which are edging into hip hop and breakbeat territory. As a result, the album mixes her dark narratives with modern splurges of electro and trip hop and some fairly avant garde instrumentation (take the bass weirdness of ‘Electric Light’), as well as industrial noise (‘Joy) and your more traditional and elegiac songwriting (beautiful opener ‘Angelene’ and the title track). For variety alone, it deserves praise, and when you add the eclecticism and the great songcraft, you’d have to say this is PJ Harvey’s most forward-thinking album to date.
Let England Shake (2011)
2014 saw a whole year of commemorations for the centenary of the First World War, and while many were introduced to the poetry of Wilfred Owen or Siegfried Sassoon for the first time, back in 2011 PJ Harvey really got under the skin of what war is in the most astonishing artistic statement of her career. Listen to Let England Shake now four years on and it will still likely give you goosebumps such is the staggering empathy of this most challenging of undertakings. She surveys the carnage through the eyes of the aforementioned war poets and the accounts of soldiers in Afghanistan and Iraq, the war painters Francisco Goya and John Nash, or anyone else really who has experienced bloodshed in the field of human conflict first hand. Like an aural Picasso’s Guernica, Harvey takes feelings of despair and hopelessness and turns them into something tangible we can all relate to – Let England Shake is good enough to be mentioned in the same breath. Just like on White Chalk, Harvey started the process by removing herself from her comfort zone, this time writing much of the material on a chorded zither. It’s one of those rare records that deserves every accolade it garnered, and they were myriad, not least of all the Mercury Music Prize. Everything PJ Harvey does is essential, but this one is even more essential than all the others, and you suspect it’ll still sound great in another 100 years.