PJ Harvey: Album by Album
Polly Jean Harvey, better known as PJ Harvey, is one of the most venerated artists of her generation – and for good reason.
Born 1969 in Dorset, England, Harvey kicked off her musical career at an early age, writing songs by her early teens. Initially pursuing a college degree in visual art, she joined forces with bassist Steve Vaughn and drummer Robert Ellis in 1991 to form the band PJ Harvey. The trio released their debut, Dry, in 1992, but during the tour of its sequel, Rid Of Me (1993), the group split, leaving Polly Jean on her own.
Harvey went on with a successful solo career releasing the solo albums To Bring You My Love (1995) and Is This Desire? (1998), which turned her into one of the most important female names in alternative rock. Since then she has released a slew of essential solo and collaborative albums, which includes not one but two Mercury Prize winners: Stories from the City, Stories from the Sea (2000) and, her most recent effort, Let England Shake (2011).
In the event of PJ Harvey’s highly-anticipated new studio album, The Hope Six Demolition Project – out tomorrow – we created this album-by-album guide to her incredible discography.
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Far from your average album debut, Dry exhibits a forceful Polly Jean Harvey completely in control of her songwriting and sound. Pegged at number 16 on Kurt Cobain’s personal 50 greatest albums list, this riveting record proves deeply emotional, focusing to a great extent on attacking and destroying the constricting societal expectations surrounding femininity with vicious and unchecked passion. Recorded when PJ Harvey was still a trio, rather than a solo project, the album is sonically influenced to a great extent by post-punk, as well as bits of the blues. Harvey’s muscular musical backing is enhanced by her astonishingly intelligent lyrics that from the get-go clearly established her as one of the finest troubled troubadours of the age, leaving listeners with high hopes for her future.
Though these lyrics include elaborate metaphors and biblical allusions, the raw power of Harvey’s voice eliminates even the faintest potential traces of pretension, instead invigorating listeners even when the tracks are slower and more ballad-like. The album immediately earned Harvey comparisons to Patti Smith and Sinead O’Connor but neither of those two greats would cover such a broad range of emotion so viscerally as Harvey does over the course of Dry, epitomizing the spirit of the 1990s. Standout tracks include “Sheela-Na-Gig,” “Happy and Bleeding” and “Dress.”
Rid of Me (1993)
Taking the raw power heard on Dry even further, PJ Harvey’s sophomore effort (and last as a band) offers a post-feminist punch to the gut from a band pushing their already intense sonic stylings to new heights. The album, which might best be characterized as decidedly harsh and unflinchingly cutting, was produced by the legendary Steve Albini, the very same man behind classic records like Nirvana’s In Utero and Pixies’ Surfer Rosa. Restless, personal and riddled with tension, Rid of Me juxtaposes the intimate alongside the explosive with impactful purpose, aided by both melodic and lyrical improvements from Polly Jean.
Thematically concerning revenge and the critique of traditional masculinity, Harvey’s communicative lyrics are a testament to her keen ability to encapsulate the complex and co-existing range of human emotion with unthinkably effective economy. Lines like “I might as well be dead / but I could kill you instead” from “Legs” serve to represent the record on the whole, which is musically framed by punk and hard-hitting blues. The album was recently selected as one of the greatest albums of the nineties by Rolling Stone. Don’t miss “Rid of Me,” “Man-Size,” “50ft Queenie” and their marvelous, inventive cover of Bob Dylan’s “Highway 61 Revisited.”
To Bring You My Love (1995)
Parting ways with her original backing band, PJ Harvey made her true solo debut on To Bring You My Love, an album widely regarded as her breakthrough, thanks to the electric single “Down by the Water,” which received heavy rotation on both the radio and MTV. Garnering worldwide critical acclaim and remaining one of her best-selling albums to date, To Bring You My Love has been called theatrical for its rich and telling lyrics – touching on such universal themes as helplessness, rage, abuse and innocence – that prove to be the record’s main focus and most rewarding component. Though less musically aggressive than Dry or Rid of Me, Harvey’s artful third record still boasts undeniable power and grit.
This is no doubt in part thanks to the involvement of Mark “Flood” Ellis, the esteemed producer known for his work with U2, Depeche Mode and Nine Inch Nails, among many others. Harvey would go on to collaborate with Flood again on 1998’s Is This Desire? and 2011’s Let England Shake. Featuring creeping keyboards, electronic excursions and wailing experimental flourishes, To Bring You My Love proves to be somewhat of a stylistic left turn for the formerly blues-leaning Harvey, but the change paid off in a big way, allowing her to yet again take her songwriting and melodic craftsmanship to the next level. Be sure not to miss out on such tracks as “To Bring You My Love,” “C’mon Billy,” “Long Snake Moan” and “Down by the Water.”
Dance Hall at Louse Point (with John Parish) (1996)
With the world watching and expectations mounting in the wake of the masterful To Bring You My Love, Harvey deftly dodged the pressure of a solo follow-up, instead teaming up with multi-instrumentalist John Parish on Dance Hall at Louse Point. In the spirit of true collaboration, Harvey co-produced the entire album and wrote the majority of its lyrics while Parish wrote all the music and played practically every instrument featured, displaying his rich talent for texturing in the process. The fairly avant garde work recalls Harvey’s earlier stylings, complete with howls, breathy whispers and hints of the blues.
In the wake of tremendous success like Harvey received behind To Bring You My Love, she was confronted with the near-impossible task of pleasing the world at large with her follow-up. Dance Hall at Louse Point might then be understood as Harvey’s means of avoiding this constricting, high-pressure scenario, and though this art rock experiment proves dramatic and intriguing, it did not do nearly as well commercially. The album’s standout tracks include “Is That All There Is?” and “That Was My Veil.”
Is This Desire? (1998)
Returning to the limelight after years of deliberately distancing herself from the public’s overwhelming expectations, Is This Desire? consists largely of material written from the comfort of Polly Jean’s quaint hometown of Yeovil, England. The record might best be characterized as one born of self-imposed isolation, isolation that clearly manifests itself on the recordings as evidenced by the complete lack of techno or trip-hop sounds, which dominated the British mainstream in the late ‘90s. Instead, Harvey went back to the basics, returning to those brutal blues that stand as her first love and musical foundation.
Once again co-produced with Flood, PJ Harvey’s fourth proper studio record received the warm critical acclaim of her past work despite proving neither as in-your-face nor as immensely grand in scope. Of the record, Harvey once said that it “is the best record I ever made—maybe ever will make—and I feel that that was probably the highlight of my career. I gave 100 per cent of myself to that record.” Fortunately for fans, the best was yet to come. Don’t skip essential and moving tracks like “Angelene,” “The Sky Lit Up” and “A Perfect Day Elise.”
Stories from the City, Stories from the Sea (2000)
In need of change of both scenery and sound, Polly Jean fled to New York City to inspire her first (but not last) true masterpiece. With her new metropolitan backdrop, which she lyrically references throughout, Harvey tells of an urban love affair, from its initial euphoria (“Beautiful Feeling,” “This Is Love”) to the painful breakup (“Kamikaze,” “This Mess We’re In”), using her cunning craft for language to brilliantly describe universal themes of love, hate and human relationships. The sonic strength of Stories from the City lies in the contrasts first painted by the album’s title; it can get as dark and abrasive as her typical work, while brightly glowing as her most optimistic and aesthetically beautiful album to date.
Stories From the City, Stories from the Seas was one of the most critically acclaimed albums of the year and earned her the prestigious Mercury Prize, which she would go on to win again a decade later, making her the first and only artist to do so twice. In 2002, Q Magazine named it the Greatest Album of All-Time by a Female Artist. The album is flawless from start to finish, but favorites include “A Place Called Home,” “Good Fortune,” “Big Exit” and “This Mess We’re In,” her magnificent duet with Radiohead’s Thom Yorke.
Read more about Stories from the City, Stories from the Sea here.
Uh Huh Her (2004)
Following the massive success of Stories from the City, it took Harvey four years to finish her next studio album, which she singlehandedly produced and played all the instruments on. Darker and rawer than its manicured predecessor, Uh Huh Her is Polly Jean at her most sonically experimental and unpredictable (see the minute-long track of crying seagulls), and she admitted to consciously challenging what she could get away with given her mainstream success. Lyrically, she covers past themes of heartache, sex, and femininity, but always manages to find something new in familiar subject matter.
Though it received moderate critical feedback, the album was a commercial success, and in the greater trajectory of Harvey’s career Uh Huh Her is a firm testament to an chameleonic artist interested in trying anything, so long as it’s new. “The Letter” and “Shame” are considered among Harvey’s best songs.
White Chalk (2007)
Though highly acclaimed by critics, 2007’s White Chalk is something of an under-loved gem in PJ Harvey’s rich catalog. The albums finds Harvey separating herself from her beloved guitar to discover a new instrument: the piano. Despite her lack of expertise on the ivories, she decided to write all the songs for the album on the keys, creating a completely new and utterly spooky sound that’s been described as haunted British folk steeped in Gothic romance and horror.
Eerie though it might be, White Chalk is also PJ’s most delicate, intimate and even timeless record, which once again proves her unrelenting drive to experiment, change, grow and explore. The album’s standout single is “When Under Ether,” along with “The Piano” and “The Devil.”
A Woman a Man Walked By (with John Parish) (2009)
Just a year and a half after releasing White Chalk, PJ Harvey reunited with John Parish for another collaborative album. As with 1996’s Dance Hall at Louse Point, the records finds Parish composing the music and playing most of the instruments, with Harvey singing and penning all of the lyrics. Sustaining some of the ghostly atmosphere of White Chalk (which Parish co-produced), as well as the raw, confessional writing, the album has a considerably wider range of moods and emotions than Harvey’s recent work up to that point.
A Woman a Man Walked By is eclectic, experimental and has more moments that could be described as “fun” (at least to Harvey-Parish standards) than even Stories from the City. Like their first project, the album didn’t get the attention of a proper PJ Harvey record, but these songs are as vibrant as anything she’s touches. Don’t miss out on opening numbers “Black Hearted Love,” “Sixteen, Fifteen, Fourteen” and “Leaving California,” and then just keep on listening.
Let England Shake (2011)
If there was any doubt that PJ Harvey remained perennially brilliant and innovative two decades since her debut, Let England Shake shook us all and quickly became the most celebrated album of her career. In bold and uncompromising fashion, the deeply conceptual album takes on the history of England, specifically as it relates war, conflict and politics. Recorded over a two and a half year period, it is deeply researched in its lyricism and exuberantly diverse in its musical influences, with her newfound love of the autoharp acting as an aural common thread.
A heavy and majestic album that you want to listen to from beginning to end, over and over again. Let England Shake earned Harvey her second Mercury Prize and was crowned Album of the Year by well over a dozen mainstream publications. Even more than any of its predecessors this masterpiece deserves to heard in full, but favorites include the title track, “The Words That Maketh Murder,” “The Glorious Land” and “In The Dark Places.”
The Hope Six Demolition Project (2016)
Five years since Let England Shake, PJ Harvey officially announced her ninth album in January. The Hope Six Demolition Project was created last year during public sessions as part of a London art exhibition where visitors were allowed to view Harvey and her collaborators recording the album through a one-way mirror. While writing the songs (as well as her poetry book The Hollow of the Hand), Harvey traveled to Kosovo, Afghanistan and Washington D.C. with photographer and filmmaker Seamus Murphy.
Though information has been limited leading up to release, the album’s title references the Hope VI projects in the United States, where dilapidated public housing in troubled neighborhoods is demolished redeveloped, effectively cleansing areas of their former residents. The album’s second single, “The Community of Hope,” explicitly describes the living conditions in Washington D.C.’s Ward 7, which recently drew the ire of local politicians there. If that song, as well as “The Wheel” and “The Orange Monkey,” are any indication, we’re in store for another triumphant, vital and potentially explosive full-length from one of the most essential artists in music today.
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