Supposedly she was born into a world of farming. I read once that she castrated a sheep. A skinny girl from England who is dwarfed by her guitar has been putting ouose early days, and she has been evolving ever since – recording albums by herself (4 Track Demos), as only the lyricist (Dance Hall at Louse Point), and with guests like Thom Yorke of Radiohead, and as a guest on other’s albums (Nick Cave & Sparklehorse).
I offer ten songs to represent not only the best that Polly Jean has produced, but I have also tried to pick ten songs that can faithfully give the listener a short history of the musician. With that in mind, the numbering of the songs is not from best to worst, but rather from earliest to latest. It was hard enough narrowing this down to ten, so if I had to pick one song, well, I think my head would explode.
1. Happy and Bleeding, Dry, 1992
Don’t the title make you think that this song is cheerful in any way. PJ’s first album deals with a lot of issues, but the biggest one seems to be woman’s place in the world. This song basically compares a woman with a flower, and thus the producer of fruit. However, even if you still want to think that could be construed as cheerful, it isn’t still. She sings, “more than the mountains – you”, and you really can read it two ways, either the offspring she will create or the man she is creating for, either way you get a sense that this woman has no chance to make herself happy, as she is “happy and bleeding” for “you”. The voice she uses is cheerful and light, plaintive and honest, making it the more heartbreaking that this woman doesn’t even begin to think of her needs, only the needs of her man, and by extension the baby. There is a little bit of an “Eve” complex at play as well, a theme that PJ returns to time and time again.
2. Sheelah-na-gig, Dry, 1992
This song rocks, so before you go thinking that I am only picking songs with interesting or feminist messages, well, I am, but so many of her songs have underlying messages that it is hard to find one song that is “good to dance to”. Sheelah-na-gig does have a story that once again plays with the idea of woman. The woman in this song begs a man to notice her attributes, and to see how fertile she is ( as that is the true test of a good woman, right?), only to have him accuse her of being an exhibitionist. Ah, the double standard that a man wants to look at a woman shaking her money maker, but then decries her for the same thing. But besides the feminism, this song has a great beat, a driving bass line, and PJ’s vocals are dramatic.
3. Legs, Rid of Me, 1993
Every song on this album is good, and I had a really hard time choosing one, and almost didn’t, since there are so many other sons, but this album had to be represented in this list. Legs is my favorite, and one of the best because oit is kind of a sick and twisted song. This woman is singing to her lover “did I tell you you’re divine?” She asks the same question again, but with the caveat, “did i..when you were alive?” So, yeah, things are getting strange, but then she ponders cutting off his legs to prevent him from leaving her, and then she ends with the realization that she would die without him, but hey “i could kill you instead.” It is a deliciously demented song, and her vocals are heartbreaking and evil at the same time.
**Most of the songs on Rid of Me, including Legs, are also on 4 Track Demos, an album that PJ Harvey made with her playing all the instruments and recording it herself, her “demo” album, literally. If you like PJ more strippped down, this is the album to listen to.
4. Meet Ze Monsta, To Bring You My Love, 1995
I am moving out of PJ Harvey’s early period and moving into her character period. Let me explain. PJ is a story teller, and she tells those stories through characters (read the song descriptions above). Well, for his album, she full on put a new character out there, changing her appearance from a minimalist to an old Hollywood, red-satin wearing, dark eyeliner and fake eyelashes chanteuse, but a chanteuse with a lot of attitude. Meet Ze Monsta starts with a thumping bass line and fuzzy guitar, and the lyrics are forceful, angry and pointed. It’s really all about sex, and that struggle therein. She screams, she howls, she rocks. This is a great song
5. Send His Love to Me, To Bring You My Love, 1995
I had to pick another song from this album, as the songs show some real range for Ms. Harvey. Send His Love to Me is a bit more desperate, and the vocals achieve this as well as the lyrics. The woman needs the man that has gone away, but she acknowledges that her love has become a “torture, this love my only crime.” Back to some more double entendre, it is horrible not having her lover there, but then it is not such a good thing to be in this situation, so dependent on another for one’s happiness. This song is percussion heavy, driving, with some good phrasing.
6. City of No Sun, Dance Hall at Louse Point, 1996
This is listed as a PJ Harvey album, but it is actually a John Parrish and PJ Harvey album, with Parrish in charge of the music, and PJ supplying the lyrics and vocals. It is an incredible album, as it covers such a broad spectrum, and even though it doesn’t sound like PJ Harvey, oh, it is. City of No Sun may not be the best song on the album, from a commercial standpoint, but the vocals stand out as exquisite. The woman in this song is desperate, heartbroken, but adamant. PJ’s voice carries this story, as the lyrics are sparse. Her voice elicits an emotional response, as you hear and feel her pain. This whole album experiments with different levels of pain in PJ’s voice, and I think she really comes into her own as a singer on this album. Maybe because she was freed from having to compose the music, all of her muses came out in her voice.
7. The Sky Lit Up, Is This Desire?, 1998
This album marks a change in PJ Harvey. You sense that she isn’t as angry as she has been in the past, or heartbroken, or fierce. This is not my favorite album, even though it has some very fine songs on it. The Sky Lit Up is the most upbeat of the songs, and the music is pulsating. PJ’s smooth, driving, and electric. This is a quick song that climaxes, almost before you really want it to. PJ goes to her higher register at the end, and for the first time, her high voice sounds as powerful as her growl.
8. My Beautiful Leah, Is This Desire?, 1998
My Beautiful Leah is hard to get out of your head. It is a little “techno” in style, but don’t think techno dance club, thump thump thump, but rather think atmospheric, dark and desperate. The character singing this song is a man ( or a very butch lesbian) seeking information on a lost soul named Leah. If PJ used a high, lilting voice, you could almost mistake it for a more aggressive Portishead.
9. Kamikazee, Stories from the City, Stories from the Sea, 2000
This is PJ Harvey’s most autobiographical album, or so it seems. It is really hard to find out much about her personal life, but I guess she lived in NYC for a spell, leaving England behind for a while. This album was the result of her stay in the US. The album is very good, but still very similar to Is This Desire? and frankly, I missed the old PJ. This song, Kamikaze, is the one song I would replay a couple of times. It has a great fast pacing, and again a lot of PJ’s bad attitude. Again she uses a more computerized sound for this song, which threw me off at first, but it is the one song on this album that rocks out, so you turn it up loud.
10. Shame, Uh Huh Her, 2004
Uh Huh Her marks a return to vintage PJ, but don’t think that she is reverting to her roots in order to cheat or puss out. No, this latest album of Harvey’s shows maturity, and especially in the vocals. PJ’s voice has only become better over the years, and this album exhibits her true range. Shame is a faster paced song, lots of guitar, but this song has a woman singing that can let it go. She doesn’t have to chop off any legs, or kill anyone, she can walk away with her head held high, writing off the doomed romance, as a “shame, shame, shame.”
I am sure that I could not even begin to do justice to PJ Harvey’s body of work, but these are the ten songs that I go to first when I pull up PJ Harvey on my itunes. There really are at least double this number when it comes to rattling off PJ”s best songs, but I can go to sleep tonight knowing that I at least represented. Word.