Like most idealistic youngsters, though, Harvey did feature in her share of formative local groups while she grew up. In her case, these included a folk duo called The Polekats and an all-instrumental octet named Bologne (sic). Harvey later attended Yeovil College in Somerset, studying a visual arts foundation course before heading for the more cosmopolitan metropolis of Bristol, where she joined an experimental outfit named Automatic Dlamini, in July 1988.
Formed by the highly respected John Parish (who would also later collaborate with other critically acclaimed artists such as EELS, Tracy Chapman and Sparklehorse), Automatic Dlamini initially formed in 1983 and had a loose, fluid line-up which often featured drummer Rob Ellis. Harvey learnt her chops with them over the next few years, providing saxophone, guitar and background vocals, and travelling to countries such as Spain, Poland and the former West Germany to help promote the band’s debut LP, The D Is For Drum, recorded before Harvey became involved. Harvey did, however, play on the band’s second LP, Here Catch, Shouted His Father in early 1990, but, at the time of writing, this LP still hasn’t received an official release, though bootleg copies have been known to circulate on the fringes of the marketplace over the past 20 years.
Her dues paid, Harvey formed her own band in 1991, though John Parish remained a significant presence in her life. He’s since contributed to and/or produced a number of Harvey’s records, while the two of them have also teamed up for two highly regarded collaborative LPs, 1996’s Dance Hall At Louse Point and 2009’s A Woman A Man Walked By. Parish’s girlfriend during the late 80s, photographer Maria Mochnacz also became a close ally of Harvey’s, later shooting and designing many of Harvey’s album covers and music videos.
Though often viewed as a solo artist from day one, Harvey’s first two LPs were technically recorded by the PJ Harvey Trio, with Harvey (guitar and vocals) joined by drummer Rob Ellis and bassist Steve Vaughan: the latter becoming full-time bassist after Ian Oliver initially tried out but decided to rejoin Automatic Dlamini. The band often faltered in their early days (reputedly clearing the hall when they played a skittle alley at Charmouth Village Hall) but after they relocated to London – where Harvey temporarily applied to study sculpture at St Martin’s College Of Art & Design – things started to change. The band’s first demo reached go-ahead indie imprint Too Pure, who released their first 45, ‘Dress’, in October 1991; it earned Single Of The Week status by UK rock weekly Melody Maker’s guest reviewer, the influential BBC Radio 1 DJ John Peel.
Peel invited the band to record a session for his show on 29 October and, early in 1992, Too Pure released the band’s second single, ‘Sheela-Na-Gig’, and their equally acclaimed debut LP, Dry, in March. Though punky, emotionally brutal and relatively primitive, Dry was – and remains – an important debut LP, with Harvey’s voice soaring over her band’s compelling, stripped-back urban blues, while songs such as ‘Victory’, ‘Dress’ and the exuberant feminist-leaning ‘Sheela-Na-Gig’ boasted super-catchy hooks.
Both fans and critics agreed that Dry was a remarkable statement of intent. Despite being issued through impoverished indie Too Pure (these days part of the Beggars Banquet group), the LP shot to No.11 on the UK charts and went silver, not to mention gaining significant praise Stateside, where Rolling Stone named Harvey Songwriter Of The Year in 1993. (Nirvana’s Kurt Cobain later chose Dry as his 16th favourite album of all time in his posthumously-published Journals.)
Harvey and co were in the eye of a media hurricane following the success of Dry and their widely publicised appearance at the 1992 Reading Festival. Record companies inevitably made overtures and the band signed with Chris Blackwell’s Island imprint (now part of Universal Music Group) for their second LP, May 1993’s Rid Of Me.
Recorded in rural Cannon Falls, Minnesota, Rid Of Me was produced by ex-Big Black guitarist Steve Albini, who was then making a name for himself as an alt.rock producer of note, having already helmed LPs for Pixies, The Wedding Present and The Breeders. Notorious for his crude, abrasive production methods (mostly involving wholly live performances and strategic mic-ing), Albini’s production on Rid Of Me was suitably raw and feedback-strewn, and, if anything, the overall LP was harsher and more psychotic than Dry. Again, though, fans and media agreed it was magnificent and, with a further push from two fantastic singles, ’50 Ft Queenie’ and the predatory ‘Man-Size’, the record climbed to No.3 in the UK album charts, going silver and eventually selling over 200,000 copies.
The band gigged heavily in support of Rid Of Me, touring in both the UK and US, and opening for U2 on their mammoth Zooropa Tour, in August ’93, but exhaustion kicked in and by September the PJ Harvey Trio splintered, with Ellis and Vaughan both quitting. Harvey responded by returning to England, where she bought a house in the countryside and composed the songs for her third LP, February 1995’s To Bring You My Love.
A new team of collaborators were drafted in for the sessions. These included a returning John Parish, Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds/The Birthday Party mainstay Mick Harvey and French drummer Jean-Marc Butty, while the record was produced by another future long-term Harvey acolyte, Flood, whose lengthy credits include records with The Cure and Depeche Mode. With a greater emphasis on gothic American blues and a broader instrumental palette (including strings, organs and synthesisers), To Bring You My Love featured some of Harvey’s most enduring songs, such as ‘Meet Ze Monsta’, the courtly ‘C’mon Billy’ and the sensual, but menacing ‘Down By The Water’; the fact it was her most accessible record yet was reflected in its commercial performance. Nominated for the coveted Mercury Music Prize, the LP jumped to No.12 in the UK – going gold in the process – but also climbed to No.40 on the US Billboard 200 and eventually sold just over a million copies worldwide.
The songs for her fourth LP, Is This Desire?, came out of what Harvey described to Rolling Stone’s Jim Irvin as “an incredibly low patch”. Harvey also, however, told The Daily Telegraph that the LP was “the highlight of my career”, and it remains a fascinating record. Released in September 1998 and featuring contributions from Parish, Mick Harvey and a returning Rob Ellis, it was subtler and more atmospheric than To Bring You My Love, with significantly more keyboard textures and tinges of electronica. It received mixed reviews from critics, many of whom clearly longed for a second To Bring You My Love, but it still performed well, peaking at No.17 in the UK (where it was certified silver), going gold in France and climbing to No.54 on the US Billlboard 200.
However proud Harvey may have been of Is This Desire?, however, she changed tack again with 2000’s Stories From The City, Stories From The Sea, a life-affirming and (relatively) mainstream rock/pop LP at least partially inspired by Harvey’s love of New York City. Co-produced by Rob Ellis, Mick Harvey and PJ Harvey herself, it remains a terrific record, stuffed with highlights such as the passionate, punky ‘Big Exit’, the Chrissie Hynde-esque ‘Good Fortune’ and ‘This Mess We’re In’: an emotive duet between Harvey and Radiohead frontman Thom Yorke.
Critically, the LP received a welter of accolades, scooping the Mercury Music Prize and earning Harvey a Brit Award and two Grammy nominations. Its sales graph again correlated with critical opinion as it sold over 300,000 copies in the UK (earning platinum certification), went gold in France and eventually sold over a million copies worldwide.
Harvey mapped out the tracks for her sixth LP, Uh Huh Her, over the ensuing two-year period and eventually performed everything in the studio except for the drum tracks, which were supplied by her long-term collaborator Rob Ellis. Though less mainstream-friendly and darker in hue than Stories From The City's the LP nonetheless featured some of Harvey’s most satisfying songs, such as the glorious, Latin-flavoured ‘Shame’, the abrasive, pent-up ‘The Letter’ and the eerie, engrossing murder ballad ‘Pocket Knife’, and it remains a vital, essential waxing on its own terms.
Having put together a new touring band including Ellis, Simon ‘Dingo’ Archer (ex-The Fall) on bass and guitarist Josh Klinghoffer, Harvey toured Uh Huh Her extensively, going out on the road for several months with an itinerary including a clutch of major summer festivals and several dates opening for Morrissey. Though it perhaps lacked Stories From The City…’s crossover appeal, the LP received a warm critical reception and sold well, peaking at No.12 in the UK (where it again went silver) and shooting up the US Billboard Top 200, where it peaked at a career best of No.29.
Harvey’s seventh LP, 2007’s White Chalk, was, however, her most radical record to date. Eschewing virtually all vestiges of her guitar-based alt.rock sound, the LP presented a set of mournful, intimate, piano-based songs that Harvey sang in a voice pitched higher than her usual range. Streaked with British folk and gothic horror, it featured remarkable compositions such as the Emily Bronte-esque ‘The Devil’ and the eerie ‘When Under Ether’, and concluded with a blood-curdling shriek on closing track ‘The Mountain’. Though the album was arguably Harvey’s most challenging yet, it again wowed the critics and sold well, going silver in the UK (where it peaked at No.11) and also reaching No/65 on the US Billboard 200.
Released in February 2011, Harvey’s eighth LP, Let England Shake, was recorded over a five-week period at St Peter’s Church in Eype, near Harvey’s birthplace of Bridport. Recorded with contributions from John Parish, Mick Harvey and drummer Jean-Marc Butty (who later toured the LP with Harvey), it featured several highly emotive anti-war songs, including ‘The Word That Maketh Murder’, ‘The Glorious Land’ and the haunting titular song, which examined conflicts such as the disastrous Gallipoli naval strike during World War I and still-ongoing modern-day conflicts taking place in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Let England Shake received almost universally positive reviews, with the NME awarding it a rare 10/10, and a raft of publications, including Mojo and The Guardian, declaring it Album Of The Year. Remarkably, it also scooped a second Mercury Music Prize for Harvey, as well as An Ivor Novello Award, in May 2012. Commercially, Let England Shake also proved to be one of PJ Harvey’s most successful outings, climbing to No.8 in the UK (where it eventually went gold), peaking at No.32 on the US Billboard 200, and also earning a gold disc in Denmark.
Harvey continues to explore new avenues for her music, holding the initial sessions for her next LP (provisionally entitled Recording In Progress) in front of a live audience in a custom-built studio outside London’s Somerset House in January 2015. The band involved again featured John Parish, while Flood manned the recording console. As yet, nothing official has emerged from these sessions, though initial reports suggest that some of the new songs will again have a politically charged lyrical content.
Devotees currently await further developments with bated breath, though in the meantime they can devour Harvey’s freshly released poetry book, The Hollow Of The Hand: a collaboration with photographer/film-maker Sean Murphy, which documents their travels to Kosovo and Afghanistan following the release of Let England Shake.
Dry was shockingly frank in its subject and sound, as PJ Harvey delivered post-feminist manifestos with a punkish force. PJ Harvey's second album, Rid of Me, finds the trio, and Harvey in particular, pushing themselves to extremes. This is partially due to producer Steve Albini, who gives the album a bloodless, abrasive edge with his exacting production; each dynamic is pushed to the limit, leaving absolutely no subtleties in the music. Harvey's songs, in decided contrast to Albini's approach, are filled with gray areas and uncertainties, and are considerably more personal than those on Dry. Furthermore, they are lyrically and melodically superior to the songs on the debut, but their merits are obscured by Albini's black-and-white production, which is polarizing. It may be the aural embodiment of the tortured lyrics, and therefore a supremely effective piece of performance art, but it also makes Rid of Me a difficult record to meet halfway. But anyone willing to accept its sonic extremities will find Rid of Me to be a record of unusual power and purpose, one with few peers in its unsettling emotional honesty.
Words: Stephen Thomas Erlewine
PJ Harvey followed her ghostly collection of ballads, White Chalk, with Let England Shake, a set of songs strikingly different from what came before it except in its Englishness. White Chalk's haunted piano ballads seemed to emanate from an isolated manse on a moor, but here Harvey chronicles her relationship with her homeland through songs revolving around war. Throughout the album, she subverts the concept of the anthem -- a love song to one’s country -- exploring the forces that shape nations and people. This isn’t the first time Harvey has been inspired by a place, or even by England: she sang the praises of New York City and her home county of Dorset on Stories from the City, Stories from the Sea. Harvey recorded this album in Dorset, so the setting couldn’t be more personal, or more English. Yet she and her longtime collaborators John Parish, Mick Harvey, and Flood travel to the Turkish battleground of Gallipoli for several of Let England Shake's songs, touching on the disastrous World War I naval strike that left more than 30,000 English soldiers dead. Her musical allusions are just as fascinating and pointed: the title track sets seemingly cavalier lyrics like “Let’s head out to the fountain of death and splash about” to a xylophone melody borrowed from the Four Lads’ “Istanbul (Not Constantinople),” a mischievous echo of the questions of national identity Harvey sets forth in the rest of the album (that she debuted the song by performing it on the BBC’s The Andrew Marr Show for then-Prime Minster Gordon Brown just adds to its mischief). “The Words That Maketh Murder” culminates its grisly playground/battleground chant with a nod to Eddie Cochran's anthem for disenfranchised ‘50s teens “Summertime Blues,” while “Written on the Forehead” samples Niney's “Blood and Fire” to equally sorrowful and joyful effect. As conceptually and contextually bold as Let England Shake is, it features some of Harvey's softest-sounding music. She continues to sing in the upper register that made White Chalk so divisive for her fans, but it’s tempered by airy production and eclectic arrangements -- fittingly for such a martial album, brass is a major motif -- that sometimes disguise how angry and mournful many of these songs are. “The Last Living Rose” recalls Harvey's Dry-era sound in its simplicity and finds weary beauty even in her homeland’s “grey, damp filthiness of ages,” but on “England,” she wails, “You leave a taste/A bitter one.” In its own way, Let England Shake may be even more singular and unsettling than White Chalk was, and its complexities make it one of Harvey’s most cleverly crafted works.
Words: Heather Phares
Following the tour for Rid of Me, Polly Harvey parted ways with Robert Ellis and Stephen Vaughn, leaving her free to expand her music from the bluesy punk that dominated PJ Harvey's first two albums. It also left her free to experiment with her style of songwriting. Where Dry and Rid of Me seemed brutally honest, To Bring You My Love feels theatrical, with each song representing a grand gesture. Relying heavily on religious metaphors and imagery borrowed from the blues, Harvey has written a set of songs that are lyrically reminiscent of Nick Cave's and Tom Waits' literary excursions into the gothic American heartland. Since she was a product of post-punk, she's nowhere near as literally bluesy as Cave or Waits, preferring to embellish her songs with shards of avant guitar, eerie keyboards, and a dense, detailed production. It's a far cry from the primitive guitars of her first two albums, but Harvey pulls it off with style, since her songwriting is tighter and more melodic than before; the menacing "Down by the Water" has genuine hooks, as does the psycho stomp of "Meet Ze Monsta," the wailing "Long Snake Moan," and the stately "C'Mon Billy." The clear production by Harvey, Flood, and John Parish makes these growths evident, which in turn makes To Bring You My Love her most accessible album, even if the album lacks the indelible force of its predecessors.
Words: Stephen Thomas Erlewine
Polly Jean Harvey arrives fully formed as a songwriter on PJ Harvey's debut album, Dry. Borrowing its primitive attack from post-punk guitar rock and its form from the blues, Dry is a forceful collection of brutally emotional songs, highlighted by Harvey's deft lyricism and startling voice, as well as her trio's muscular sound. Her voice makes each song sound like it was an exposed nerve, but her lyrics aren't quite that simple. Shaded with metaphors and the occasional biblical allusion, Dry is essentially an assault on feminine conventions and expectations, and while there are layers of dark humor, they aren't particularly evident, since Harvey's singing is shockingly raw. Her vocals are perfectly complemented by the trio's ferocious pounding, which makes even the slow ballads sound like exercises in controlled fury. And that's the key to Dry: the songs, which are often surprisingly catchy -- "Dress" and "Sheela-Na-Gig" both have strong hooks -- are as muscular and forceful as the band's delivery, making the album a vibrant and fully realized debut.
Words: Stephen Thomas Erlewine
During her career, Polly Jean Harvey has had as many incarnations as she has albums. She's gone from the Yeovil art student of her debut Dry, to Rid of Me's punk poetess to To Bring You My Love and Is This Desire?'s postmodern siren; on Stories From the City, Stories From the Sea -- inspired by her stay in New York City and life in the English countryside -- she's changed again. The album cover's stylish, subtly sexy image suggests what its songs confirm: PJ Harvey has grown up. Direct, vulnerable lyrics replace the allegories and metaphors of her previous work, and the album's production polishes the songs instead of obscuring them in noise or studio tricks. On the album's best tracks, such as "Kamikaze" and "This Is Love," a sexy, shouty blues-punk number that features the memorable refrain "I can't believe life is so complex/When I just want to sit here and watch you undress," Harvey sounds sensual and revitalized. The New York influences surface on the glamorous punk rock of "Big Exit" and "Good Fortune," on which Harvey channels both Chrissie Hynde's sexy tough girl and Patti Smith's ferocious yelp. Ballads like the sweetly urgent, piano and marimba-driven "One Line" and the Thom Yorke duet "This Mess We're In" avoid the painful depths of Harvey's darkest songs; "Horses in My Dreams" also reflects Harvey's new emotional balance: "I have pulled myself clear," she sighs, and we believe her. However, "We Float"'s glossy choruses veer close to Lillith Fair territory, and longtime fans can't help but miss the visceral impact of her early work, but Stories From the City, Stories From the Sea doesn't compromise her essential passion. Hopefully, this album's happier, more direct PJ Harvey is a persona she'll keep around for a while.
Words: Heather Phares
The quiet ones are always the scariest. Polly Jean Harvey's appearance on the cover of White Chalk -- all wild black hair and ghostly white dress -- could replace the dictionary definition of eerie, and the album itself plays like a good ghost story. It's haunted by British folk, steeped in Gothic romance and horror, and almost impossible to get out of your head, despite (but really because of) how unsettling it becomes. White Chalk is Harvey's darkest album yet -- which, considering that she's sung about dismembering a lover and drowning her daughter, is saying something. It's also one of her most beautiful albums, inspired by the fragility and timelessness of chalk lines and her relative newness to the piano, which dominates White Chalk; it gives "Before Departure" funereal heft and "Grow Grow Grow" a witchy sparkle befitting its incantations. Most striking of all, however, is Harvey's voice: she sings most of White Chalk in a high, keening voice somewhere between a whisper and a whimper. She sounds like a wraith or a lost child, terrifyingly so on "The Mountain," where she breaks the tension with a spine-tingling shriek just before the album ends. This frail persona is almost unrecognizable as the woman who snarled about being a 50-foot queenie -- yet few artists challenge themselves to change their sound as much as she does, so paradoxically, it's a quintessentially PJ Harvey move. The album does indeed sound timeless, or at least, not modern.
White Chalk took five months to record with Harvey's longtime collaborators Flood, John Parish, and Eric Drew Feldman, but these somber, cloistered songs sound like they could be performed in a parlor, or channeled via Ouija board. There is hardly any guitar (and certainly nothing as newfangled as electric guitar) besides the acoustic strumming on the beautifully chilly title track, which could pass for an especially gloomy traditional British folk song. Lyrics like "The Devil"'s "Come here at once! All my being is now in pining" could be written by one of the Brontë sisters. On a deeper level, White Chalk feels like a freshly unearthed relic because it runs so deep and dark. Harvey doesn't just capture isolation and anguish; she makes fear, regret, and loneliness into entities. In these beautiful and almost unbearably intimate songs, darkness is a friend, silence is an enemy, and a piano is a skeleton with broken teeth and twitching red tongues. "When Under Ether" offers a hallucinatory escape from some horrible reality -- quite possibly abortion, since unwanted children are some of the many broken family ties that haunt the album -- and this is White Chalk's single. What makes the album even more intriguing is that it doesn't really have much in common with the work of Harvey's contemporaries (although Joanna Newsom's Ys and Scott Walker's The Drift come to mind, mostly for their artistic fearlessness) or even her own catalog. It rivals Dance Hall at Louse Point for its willingness to challenge listeners, but it's far removed from Uh Huh Her, which was arguably more listenable but a lot less remarkable. In fact, this may be Harvey's most undiluted album yet. When she's at the peak of her powers, as she is on this frightening yet fearless album, the world she creates is impossible to forget, or shake off easily. White Chalk can make you shiver on a sunny day.
Words: Heather Phares
Retreating from the limelight after the tour for To Bring You My Love, PJ Harvey returned to her small hometown of Yeovil and isolated herself from most pop trends, eventually writing the material that would come to comprise her fourth album, Is This Desire? Released over three and a half years after To Bring You My Love, Is This Desire? has all the hallmarks of a record written in isolation; subtle, cerebral, insular, difficult to assimilate, it's the album where Polly Harvey enters the ranks of craftsmen, sacrificing confession for fiction. It's an inevitable transition for any artist, especially one as lyrically gifted as Harvey, and though her words are more obtuse and not as brutal, painful, or clever, she still draws some effective character sketches. Similarly, the music on Is This Desire? is hardly the immediate, blunt force that characterized her first albums, nor is it the grand theater of To Bring You My Love -- it takes its time, slowly working its way into the subconsciousness. There are a few guitar explosions scattered throughout the record, but it's primarily a series of layered keyboards, electronic rhythms, and acoustic guitars; it's so quiet that at times it barely rises above a murmur, and occasionally floats away without leaving a lasting impression. It seems to challenge the listener to accept it on its own grounds, but once you dig deeper, it winds up offering diminishing rewards. It is more concerned with texture than any of her previous records, but it doesn't push forward enough -- it's either standard hard rockers or mournful ballads underpinned by lite electronica beats, which would have more impact if they were more pronounced. Since Harvey is an extraordinarily gifted songwriter, the album is hardly devoid of merit, but it's her least focused or successful record to date.
Words: Stephen Thomas Erlewine
Even though she's not quite as overt about it as Madonna or David Bowie, PJ Harvey remains one of rock's expert chameleons. Her ever-changing sound keeps her music open to interpretation, and her seventh album, Uh Huh Her, is no different in that it departs from what came before it. Uh Huh Her -- a title that can be pronounced and interpreted as an affirmation, a gasp, a sigh, or a laugh -- is, as Harvey promised, darker and rawer than the manicured Stories from the City, Stories from the Sea. That album was a bid for the mainstream that Harvey said she made just to see if she could; this album sounds like she made it because she had to. However, despite the playful tantrum "Who the Fuck?" and the noisy mix of pent-up erotic longing and frustration that is "The Letter," Uh Huh Her isn't the Rid of Me redux that one might envision as a reaction to the previous album's gloss. Instead, Harvey uses some of each of the sounds and ideas that she has explored throughout her career. The gallery of self-portraits, juxtaposed with snippets of Harvey's notebooks, gracing Uh Huh Her's liner notes underscores the feeling of culmination and moving forward. The results aren't exactly predictable, though, and that's part of what makes songs like "The Life and Death of Mr. Badmouth" interesting. Earlier in Harvey's career, a track like this probably would have exploded in feral fury, but here it simmers with a crawling tension, switching atmospheric keyboards for searing guitars. Indeed, keyboards and odd instrumental flourishes abound on Uh Huh Her, making it the most sonically interesting PJ Harvey album since Is This Desire? Lyrically, heartache, sex, and feminine roles are still Harvey's bread and butter, but she manages to find something new in these themes each time she returns to them. "Pocket Knife" is an especially striking example: a beautifully creepy murder ballad, the song conjures images of hidden feminine power -- a pocketknife concealed by a wedding dress -- as well as lyrics like "I'm not trying to cause a fuss/I just wanna make my own fuck-ups." "You Come Through," meanwhile, is nearly as direct and vulnerable as anything that appeared on Stories from the City, Stories from the Sea. Uh Huh Her isn't perfect; the track listing feels top-loaded, some of the later songs, such as "Cat on the Wall" and "It's You" come close to sounding like generic PJ Harvey (if such a thing is possible), and the minute-long track of crying seagulls is either a distraction or a palate cleanser, depending on your outlook. Still, Uh Huh Her does so many things right, like the gorgeous, Latin-tinged "Shame" and the stripped-down beauty of "The Desperate Kingdom of Love" (one of a handful of short, glimpse-like songs that give the album an organic ebb and flow), that its occasional stumbles are worth overlooking. Perhaps the most nuanced album in PJ Harvey's body of work, Uh Huh Her balances her bold and vulnerable moments, but remains vital.
Words: Heather Phares
A Woman a Man Walked By arrived just a year and a half after PJ Harvey's equally difficult and brilliant White Chalk. That alone makes it notable, since the last time she released albums in such quick succession was the early to mid-'90s, around the same time of her last songwriting collaboration with John Parish, Dance Hall at Louse Point. That album's unbridled experiments provided a sharp contrast to the subversive polish of its predecessor, To Bring You My Love; while A Woman a Man Walked By isn't quite as overt an about-face from White Chalk, the difference is still distinct. Here, Harvey and Parish (who played on and co-produced White Chalk) trade sublime, sustained eeriness for freewheeling vignettes that cover a wider range of sounds and moods than her music has in years. They begin with "Black Hearted Love," the equivalent of Dance Hall at Louse Point's "This Was My Veil" -- that is, the album's most accessible moment: guitar-heavy yet sleek, its riffs full of pregnant pauses as Harvey hones in on the one she wants, the song's sinister romance initially seems dangerously close to melodrama ("When you call out my name in rapture/I volunteer my soul for murder"), but she sings "you are my black-hearted love" so tenderly and knowingly that it transcends cliché.
This immediacy just makes the swift twists and turns the rest of A Woman a Man Walked By takes even more striking. The wildly jangling acoustic guitar and breathless vocals of the following track, "Sixteen Fifteen Fourteen," make that clear right away, but despite its nervy intensity, the song -- and the rest of the album -- is remarkably direct. Similarly, Harvey's character studies are just as vivid as other artists' really real, from-the-soul lyrics, and she embodies them just as completely: on "The Soldier," she sings of "walking on the faces of dead women" with haunted fragility; on "Daniel," she's a mother so devastated by loss that she can only mention it by name at the last possible moment. A Woman a Man Walked By also boasts songs that rank among Harvey's most intimate and seemingly confessional. From its shimmering guitar and mournful flute to its carefully observed words ("you slept facing the wall"), "Passionless, Pointless" captures a dying romance with dreamy desolation, while "Cracks in the Canvas" closes the album with the beautifully simple yet open-ended admission "I'm looking for an answer, me and a million others."
Best of all, though, are A Woman a Man Walked By's furious -- and surprisingly hilarious -- moments, which leave conventional notions about sex and sexuality trampled in their wake. The first part of "A Woman a Man Walked By/The Crow Knows Where All the Little Children Go" finds Harvey deriding and lusting after a "woman man" with "lily-livered little parts," switching between a guttural snarl and fey soprano as she tears him to pieces (the second, instrumental part is Parish's only solo credit on the album, a riot of pianos and twitchy percussion that's nearly as wound-up as what came before it). "Pig Will Not" is even rawer, mixing Rid of Me-like firepower with a wicked sense of humor and feral barking with lines like "true love is what we're doing now." Even the far quieter "Leaving California" reveals a surprising amount of mischief, invoking some of White Chalk's mist and gloom for its ironic kiss-off to the Golden State. Despite the album's many dark and evocative moments, there's a playfulness and liberated spirit underlying A Woman a Man Walked By. Parish and Harvey's idea of fun might be very different than that of many other artists, but hearing them cover so much musical and emotional territory is often exhilarating.
Words: Heather Phares
Part of a series commemorating the second anniversary of legendary BBC DJ John Peel's death, PJ Harvey's The Peel Sessions 1991-2004 feels like a thank you and goodbye to a longtime friend. It should almost go without saying that these performances are great. As good as PJ Harvey's albums are, her concerts are even more striking, and her rapport with Peel just adds to the intimacy and intensity of these songs. The tracks from the October 1991 session that kick off the album account for a third of the entire album and may actually be better than the versions of these songs that ended up on Dry almost a year later. "Oh My Lover"'s lumbering guitars and "Victory"'s heavy, almost tangible basslines capture the formidable power and tightly controlled dynamics of the PJ Harvey trio at the time. However, the ecstatic version of "Water" is the standout, harnessing the full range of Harvey's amazing voice, from gently phrased verses to gasping shrieks at the song's end. From here, The Peel Sessions 1991-2004 takes some interesting twists and turns. Harvey hand-picked all the songs included here, and she makes some surprising choices (though maybe they shouldn't be, considering that she often puts unexpected songs in her live shows). Her version of Willie Dixon's "Wang Dang Doodle" (which also appeared as a B-side on the Man-Size single) is one of her most ferociously sexy and playful performances from the Rid of Me/4-Track Demos era, and it doesn't disappoint here; "Losing Ground," the creepy biblical punk of "Snake," and "This Wicked Tongue," a snarling rocker that was only on the Japanese version and first U.K. pressing of Stories from the City, Stories from the Sea, are equally raw and direct. On the other hand, the almost-folk of "That Was My Veil" and hypnotic restraint of "Beautiful Feeling" show that the more reflective sound Harvey developed later in the '90s was just as gripping. Interestingly, the only single included from her post-Dry work is the final song, "You Come Through," which she performed at the Peel tribute held six weeks after his death (making lyrics like "golden wishes to your health and mine" that much more poignant). Here, as with most of her career, Harvey doesn't go for the easy choices -- something she and her friend definitely had in common.
Words: Heather Phares