Uh Huh Her: some brief thoughts on Polly Jean Harvey
PJ Harvey is the ultimate chameleon, isn’t she? Is there another semi-mainstream musician who has explored such radically different soundscapes and personas with consistent success and artistry? Tom Waits? Not exactly. While he often brilliantly experiments with new sounds (to usually fantastic results) his persona stays firmly in place; he remains that lovable, melancholic, raspy voiced barfly regaling stories of various seedy characters and locales, sprinkling in some black humor and ruminations on God along the way. Nick Cave? Basically the same as Tom Waits but with a heavier emphasis on religion, death, and love. Prince? He never strayed all that far from home, going from R&B pop/rock n’ roll to jazz isn’t terribly radical, especially when he keeps taking his trusty guitar chops with him. Polly abandoned her electric guitar (which she plays with considerable skill) entirely in exchange for a piano (an instrument that she had never played before) on 2007’s “White Chalk”. Bob Dylan? Now we’re on to something. If there is anyone as if not more mercurial than PJ Harvey, it would be Bob Dylan. I see you raising your hand back there, and I know whose name you’re about to throw out and you can just put that hand right back down, mister. In fact, Gavin Riley of Strangeglue.com summed up her musical (and aesthetic) shape shifting, and how it compares to that other (supposed) female pop-chameleon beautifully:
“The mainstream media often peddles Madonna as the Queen of reinvention. Well, if Madonna’s the Queen, then PJ Harvey is the Empress”
Amen. Call me when Madonna does an album of spooky piano ballads that invoke Victorian ghost stories, one of which begins with “Hit her with a hammer/teeth smashed in/red tongues twitching/look inside a skeleton”. Also, you’ll have to let me know when her albums go from sexy blues rock industrial, to art rock, to experimental lo-fi electronica, to shimmery radio friendly pop/indie rock, to stripped down fuzzy Indie-rock/acoustic, to the aforementioned spooky Victorian piano based music, and then right back to art rock. I’m fairly certain that I won’t be getting calls of confirmation on that any time soon.
Her lyrics are so powerfully written that she has rock critics and journalists thoroughly convinced that her work is intensely personal, a notion that she often goes to great lengths to dismiss. She denies being an “axe wielding bitch cow from Hell“, but I guess that image is more interesting than the reality of PJ Harvey being a quiet farm girl from Yeovil who just happens to have extraordinary skill when it comes to storytelling. Although, I really can’t blame those who assume that she her personality is inseparable from her musical output. The vividness and raw emotional power of her lyrics could lead anyone to assume that she is writing them from a personal place, because with most musicians that is often the case. Her lyrics often tackle very broad themes of lust, spiritual redemption, vengeance, desire, abuse, and death. Her carnal obsessions are always of particular interest, I think, because of the zeal with which she dives into them. She is, after all, the woman who shrieked “Lick my legs, I’m on fire!” at the end of “Rid of Me”. The characters in her songs view sex as combat or a contact sport: there are definite winners and losers in the sexual encounters described in “A Woman A Man Walked By/The Crow Knows Where All The little Children Go”. Aside from those very broad themes, her songs are about stories, and a great storyteller can craft a convincing tale that has no root in their personal life or emotional state. That makes PJ Harvey a great storyteller.
Perhaps more potent than her lyrics is her songwriting, or rather her ability to adapt to any style of songwriting that might suit the album she has in mind. She began her career as a trio that was collectively called “PJ Harvey”, a simple combination of guitar/vocals (Polly), drums (Rob Ellis) and bass (Steve Vaughan) fueled the austere punkish alterna-rock sound. Occasionally there was the inclusion of some erratically played cello to create some dissonance, as with the acoustic song “Plants and Rags”. For her next album, “Rid of Me” she chose legendary producer Steve Albini who had previously worked with the likes of Pixies, The Breeders, The Jesus Lizard, and Nirvana. Harvey chose Albini because his production style was able to capture the “live in the studio” feel that she was looking for. It shows, because the instruments on the album don’t sound as though they have been filtered through a mixer (they have been), but it sounds as though they’re right there playing in front of you. With “To Bring You My Love” she began her first of several collaborations with the producer Flood (Depeche Mode, U2, Nine Inch Nails, Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds). This hard rocking romp was an homage to Mississippi Delta blues, infused with the noise rock that would she would experiment with further on “Is This Desire?”.
Layered within that stomping, confident bluesy guitar work you can hear whistles, fuzz, and the grinding of machinery. “Is This Desire” saw a radical experiment in electronica, in which she essentially tried her hand at trip-hop, most likely inspired specifically by English trip-hop icons Tricky and Portishead. She turned a complete 180 for her next album, the pop magnum opus “Stories From The City, Stories From The Sea” which glistened and shimmered with pop perfection, which went hand in hand with the albums emphasis on big choruses and catchy hooks. She stripped down everything again for “Uh Huh Her”, recording the album on “the shittiest amps [she] could find”, with songs that were devoid of the catchy choruses and replaced with more introspective, understated, and romantic lyrics. White Chalk was her most radical sound change yet, foregoing all previous soundscapes and diving head first into piano heavy songs. What’s remarkable is the fact that she taught herself how to play piano for the album. An acoustic guitar appears here and there, but mostly it’s the piano, a banjo, some harmonica, and light percussion. For the first time she recorded her songs almost entirely in her upper register, contributing to the albums creepy, ghostly verve.
Then there are the outfits. They all changed according to the sound of the album. For her theatrical blues rock masterwork “To Bring You My Love” she dressed in a hot pink cat suit with a visible black bra and garish make up that she described as looking like “Joan Crawford on acid”. For “Is This Desire?” grew out her bangs, affecting an 80’s goth punk look with black leather jackets and understated red shirts with black pants to compliment the dark lo-fi nature of the album. And so on and so forth. I think it is because she embodies these personas and styles so fully that people often forget that the real PJ Harvey is not the one featured on the album cover. The real PJ Harvey is more of a mystery than that. Polly herself is particularly cagey on this subject: she states that her albums are so different because she “lives in fear of comfort” and thus blazes new trails in order to stray from anything that reminds her too much of PJ Harvey. At this point it’s basically impossible to pin down just what PJ Harvey sounds like, so I guess her mission has been accomplished.
The many faces (and sounds) of PJ Harvey:
And a new song!: