PJ Harvey: Analysis of her Studio Albums
I've decided to analyze all five studio albums in terms of production, lyrics, themes, and overall musicality. If this sounds too boring for you casual readers out there, then go over to some generic music site like Vh1.com to get your musical education. I'm a college student, forced to write paper after paper on things I don't get a flying fuck about ... so its here in Vintage Rock I can discuss my passions. This week I happen to be focusing on one of my girl crushes and current obessions :PJ Harvey. So just deal with. I first started listening to PJ Harvey after Aims sent me a compliation of some of her favorite tracks to me via snail mail. So, I have been casually listening to that compliation, enjoying her Patti Smith remincesent vocals (and I know PJ says such comparisions to Patti is just "lazy journalism" but my ears usually don't lie). I never bothered getting actual PJ Harvey albums till a few months ago. I now have all five of her official albums and I think they are all striking, not a dud in the bunch. I don't have 4-Track Demos yet or Dance Hall at Louse Point. I don't really count either in this article anyway because 4-Track Demos is obvioulsy demo work and on Dance Hall at Louse Point she collaborated/performed with John Parish.
One of the things I love most about Polly Jean Harvey is that she pretty much reinvents herself with each album, sonically though...not in the erraticaly insane way Madonna does with her Hindu-Kabala-mommy dearest phases. Peej explains why she experiments with her sound: "when I'm working on a new record, the most important thing is to not repeat myself ... that's always my aim: to try and cover new ground and really to challenge myself. Because I'm in this for learning."
Okay now that THAT I got my long rambling out of the way, here comes the analysis...maybe it will help you casual fans and newcomers to Polly Jean pick out an album to start with based on your particular musical preferences:
Album: Dry (1992)
Highlights: Oh My Lover, Plants and Rags, Dress, Sheela Na Gig, O Stella, Happy and Bleeding
Steve Vaughn,Rob Ellis, and Polly Jean Harvey formed PJ Harvey (which is a musical trio, not to be confused with PJ's solo career). This was their debut, back in 1992. Since it was released at the height of the "Riot Grrrl" movement of the early to mid-90's, PJ's music often gets thrown into that genre even though she's stated in Bust magaize that she's completely against such labeling:
"I don't ever think about [feminism]. I mean, it doesn't cross my mind. I certainly don't think in terms of gender when I'm writing songs, and I never had any problems as the result of being female that I couldn't get over. Maybe I'm not thankful for the things that have gone before me, you know. But I don't see that there's any need to be aware of being a woman in this business. It just seems a waste of time....I don't offer [support] specifically to women; I offer it to people who write music. That's a lot of men."
Overall this album is full of PJ's distinctive blues howl, and you can definitely hear that she was equally influenced by blues musician Howlin' Wolf as much as she was influenced by the inovative U.S. punk of The Pixies. Add Steve Vaughn and Rob Ellis' powerful yet not overwelming backing (they obviously understand PJ's musical vision) and you have one of the most solid debuts I have ever heard.
Album: Rid of Me (1993)
Highlights- Rid of Me, Missed, Yuri-G, Me-Jane, 50 Ft. Queenie, Man-Size, Snake
Steve Albini, most famously known for producing the seminal alternative rock albums Doolittle by The Pixies and In Utero by Nirvana, produced the PJ Harvey Trio's second album, Rid of Me. He's known for burying the vocals in his mixes, and that is one of the problems I have with this album. After hearing a few of her original four-track demos, I think Albini didn't realize that her lyrics and voice are forceful enough to carry her matieral. So he covered most of her vocal-tracks with distorted guitars when he should have been emphazing her most powerful instrument: her voice. The subject matter on this album is dark and twisted, and no where is this more apparent than in the album's title track. I still get chills when I hear "Lick My Legs, I'm on fire...lick my legs of desire." "Yuri-G" is also creepy has hell, and to me is about a woman driven insane by her obession for another woman that she ends up in a mental hospital where her only release is the shot her doctor gives her and the moon outside her window, beckoning her menacing lust.
Album: To Bring You My Love (1995)
Highlights: Send His Love to Me, To Bring You My Love, The Dancer, Teclo, Long Snake Moan, Working For the Man
This album marks the beginning of PJ's solo musical career and split from Steve Vaughn and Rob Ellis. Producer Mark Ellis corrects Steve Albini's errors on Rid of Me by bringing out PJ vocals and letting her simple, yet intensely felt guitar riffs carry across her themes of sexuality, lust, religion, motherhood, male domination, and romantic passion. PJ also explores a richer variety of instrumentation such as keyboard effects, organ, and strings, which added greatly to the theatricality of her music. It was during the tour of this album that she started dressing in a fashion she likes to call: "Joan Crawford on acid." This included wigs, drag queenesqe makeup, dramatic ball-gowns and skin tight catsuits. To Bring You My Love album also happens to be a fan favorite and it even spawned a "hit" by indie standards in the song "Down by the Water" which had frequent airplay on MTV back when they still actually played music videos.
Album: Is This Desire? (1998)
Highlights: Perfect Day Elise, The Wind, Catherine, The River, No Girl So Sweet, Angelene
This is my personal favorite PJ Harvey album, even if it was met with intial hesitation by some fans and critics. The reason they didn't know what to think about This is Desire? is probably because it sounds very different from the grungy, back water blues/punk of her first two albums, and even though To Bring You My Love had broader instrumentation than Rid Of Me and Dry, it was still essentially that "PJ Harvey sound". For this album, she puts more focus on creating dark sonic atmosphere with electronics, keyboards, and bass...taking the focus off the guitar. She also brings her vocals down a notch, (almost to a whisper in "The Wind). "Perfect Day Elise" is a suprisingly danceable track about lust and murder at sea that wouldn't seem out of place in a night club, as odd as that sounds. "The River" has one of the most delicate and heartbreaking piano melodies I've ever heard, a far cry from the rootsy blues punk that was the sole focus of much of her previous work. Also, the world weariness in her vocals on "Angelene," is probably some of her most vulnerable and poignant work.
Album: Stories From the City, Stories From the Sea (2001)
Highlights: Good Fortune, Beautiful Feeling, One Line, We Float, This Mess We're In (ft. Thom Yorke), and A Place Called Home
PJ Harvey reunites with her previous bandmate, Rob Ellis on this album. Stories From the City, Stories From the Sea seems to blend the uncharacteristic dance music of her previous album, Is this Desire? with her punk blues/roots, making a album of suprisingly upbeat, almost pop rock. Not that this is a bad thing at all, it just shows a different side to her music, which is something that should be celebrated. I hate to be pigeonhold as an artist just as much as I'm sure PJ Harvey does, so I think its great that she can draw musical influence from other areas and not stagnant into watered down versions of her previous albums. So I give her great kudos for this album, especially since it has some of her most athemic tunes. How can you not belt out "See danger come, I wanted a pistol I wanted a gun/ I'm scared baby/ I wanna run/ This world's crazy/ give me the gun!/ Baby Baby, aint it true, I'm immortal when I'm with you." "This Mess We're In", the duet between her and Thom Yorke is worth the price of the album alone.
Album: Uh Huh Her (2004)
Highlights: The Life and Death of Mr. Badmouth, Who the Fuck, Shame, Pocket Knife, The Desperate Kingdom of Love, No Child of Mine
Uh Huh Her, released in 2004, shows that PJ Harvey has not lost touch with her punk roots, even though it had been more than a decade since her debut was released in 1992. Overall, Uh Huh Her goes back and forth between softer acoustic ballads like "Pocket Knife" and "The Desperate Kingdom of Love" back to the abrasive dirty guitar sound of "Who the Fuck" and "The Life and Death of Mr. Badmouth." This polarized sonic effect makes the album kind of difficult for me to listen to as whole cohesive album, and that is my only real objection with it. If the flow was a bit more consistant, I could see this becoming one of my favorite PJ albums. That being said, this album overall has some of her most vital and powerful blues, not seen in this raw of form since Rid of Me.