“Don’t you wish you never met her?” – Rid of Me, 1993.

The evolution of Polly Jean Harvey from an alternation between waif and succubus, to ghostly doom-saying stateswoman, makes sense when you realise she’s spent her whole career in the shadow of the blues.

The 47-year old woman grew up in Dorset with her hippy parents feeding her a diet of the outsider blues of Captain Beefheart and Howlin’ Wolf as she mangled sheep testicles on the family farm. Always trying to carve herself out as her own woman, her first show with the PJ Harvey Trio, at the Charmouth Village Hall in 1991, had one woman mid-show saying she’ll pay for them to stop.

After moving to London came her debut single, and still one of her most iconic: ‘Dress’. Issued by indie label Too Pure, it came to the attention of the legendary DJ John Peel, who awarded it Single of the Week in Melody Maker, who offered the Trio a live session on Radio 1 a week later.

“Polly Jean seems crushed by the weight of her own songs and arrangements, as if the air is literally being sucked out of them … admirable if not always enjoyable.” – John Peel, 1992.

Peel was certainly on the money. ‘Dress’ was an exhilarating punk number with burning undercurrents of grisly blues, Harvey wrenching power chords from the scorched earth as she tells of Eve, apples “spilling over like a heavy loaded fruit tree“. Harvey played the role of the siren, and was out to kill. The album that followed, ‘Dry’, was no less compromising; eleven songs of screeching rock that were bruised because Harvey was the one that revelled in the conflict. Twenty-five years later, and its nasty, swaggering tales of sex and murder, like Patti Smith out for blood, are still as shocking. Indeed, Kurt Cobain listed it among his favourite albums in his journals.

After heavy touring and her place at Central Saint Martins College for Art and Design being withdrawn, Harvey suffered from a nervous breakdown, moved back home, and started writing her next album. ‘Rid of Me’ was produced by the iconic Steve Albini, and its whiplash-inducing turns of disarming quietness and feedback-inducing noise rock were perfectly exemplified in its opening title-track, a thoroughly disturbing number that leaves Harvey alone at the end, literally shrieking ‘lick my legs, I’m on fire’. If ‘Dry’ was an abscess, ‘Rid of Me’ was it bursting in pus and disgust. It careened from violent metallic slams to harsh rock grooves, and ended up alienating many critics.

The resulting tour concluded with the Trio splitting, and PJ Harvey was truly left to carve her own niche.

“It makes me sad. I wouldn’t have got here without them. I needed them back then – badly. But I don’t need them anymore. We all changed as people.” – 1993.

The album that followed, her first solo, was 1995’s ‘To Bring You My Love’, was the one where Harvey broke in. Voted the album of the year by Rolling Stone, The New York Times, People, USA Today, Hot Press and the Los Angeles Times, ‘To Bring You My Love’, for all its lack of rock swagger, was no less doom-laden and menacing. The opening title track is still astonishing to this day, standing aloft on barely noticeable percussion, its blues riff and bass organ would be dominating if it weren’t for Harvey laying down the best vocals of her career. Previously she preferred to slash and gouge at her lovers; here, she’s howling not out of desperation for love, because she truly fucking knows she deserves it.

“I’ve laid with the devil // Cursed God above // Forsaken Heaven // To bring you my love.” – ‘To Bring You My Love’, 1995.

‘To Bring You My Love’ saw Harvey occupying images of women in distress, most notably in the remarkably successful lead single, ‘Down By the Water’, where a sinister rumbling bass organ and fraught violas underpin her lament to her child that she drowns. Elsewhere, ‘Meet Ze Monsta’ was a dirty tribute to her idol Captain Beefheart, and ‘Long Snake Moan’ was an utter onslaught of primal, sexual noise rock, where Harvey embodies the spirit of Blind Lemon Jefferson’s ‘Black Snake Moan

“Harvey sings the blues like Nick Cave sings gospel: with more distortion, sex and murder than you remember. ‘To Bring You My Love’ was a towering goth version of grunge.” – Rolling Stone

Her look encapsulated her idea of femininity; her stark red lipstick and smudged blue eyeshadow both embracing femininity, and rejecting it. This new embracing of theatricality naturally led ‘Henry Lee’, a song about a woman killing the man she loves, recorded with Nick Cave that blossomed into a doomed relationship.

So in a difficult time of her life, it was to be expected she would come out with a ‘difficult’ record; Harvey has been quoted saying 1998’s ‘Is This Desire?’ is the record she’s most proud of. It’s muted electronic grooves whirr and hum under Lynchian images of road houses and motels, as the names Elise, Leah, Angelene and Catherine haunt the lyrics, like ghosts of women scorned.

And with her Mercury win for 2000’s ‘Stories From the City, Stories From the Sea’, Harvey had finally conquered America. Spending time in NYC, her love for the city bloomed into an album that, while no more ‘mature’ than her previous work, set its sights for a whole new direction.

“I wanted everything to sound as beautiful as possible. Having experimented with some dreadful sounds on Is This Desire? and To Bring You My Love – where I was really looking for dark, unsettling, nauseous-making sounds – Stories From The City… was the reaction. I thought, No, I want absolute beauty. I want this album to sing and fly and be full of reverb and lush layers of melody. I want it to be my beautiful, sumptuous, lovely piece of work.” – PJ Harvey, 2000.

While ‘Stories From the City’ was a more mainstream direction, entrenched in a lust for life and lust for love, melancholia still seeped through the cracks. To this day, ‘A Place Called Home’ and the astonishing opener ‘Big Exit’ are still absolutely fine pop songs, while the video for ‘This Is Love’ is perfect in its simplicity; Harvey once again defining herself as a woman in her own terms: still capable of biting when she’s smoothed over her edges.

And while the ugly crawl through the gutter of 2004’s ‘Uh Huh Her’ and the haunted fragility of 2007’s ‘White Chalk’ lacked memorable songs, they still found Harvey constantly redefining herself. The stripped back instrumentation of ‘White Chalk’ led her to start playing the autoharp, and with that came the songs that would lead into her next masterpiece, and her current role as doom-ridden folk singer, casting judgement upon war-torn lands.

“What is the glorious fruit of our land? // Its fruit is deformed children // What is the glorious fruit of our land? // Its fruit is orphan children.” – The Glorious Land, 2011

It is a true testament to PJ Harvey’s talents that she can completely reinvent everything about herself, change her voice, her image, her subject matter, learn a new instrument and release music unlike anything’s she done, and end up with the least alienating album of her career. Even ‘To Bring You My Love’ found people longing for the raw noise rock of before, but with ‘Let England Shake’ PJ Harvey truly came out on top.

The lyrics may no longer be personal, but they’re still disturbing. When soldiers aren’t treading on land ploughed with the bones of children, they’re ‘falling like lumps of meat’. Inspired by Francisco de Goya, Harold Pinter, and civilian and soldier accounts from Iraq and Afghanistan, ‘Let England Shake’ is a chilling, and often devastating. “The West’s asleep,” is the first line Harvey sings, and it sets the tone for this utter condemnation of imperialist conflict and bloodshed. The music is pastoral, often dream-like, but there is always a quietly unnerving doom-laden atmosphere, with Harvey permanently singing in her upper register, floating above her lyrics as she casts scorn across the land.

The collective trauma of the Great War bleeds through the record; the jaunty melody of ‘The Words That Maketh Murder’ ends with an alarmingly uplifting refrain of Harvey and frequent collaborator John Parish singing the ‘Summertime Blues’ coda of ‘What if I take my problems to the United Nations?’, and the utter anger of ‘The Glorious Land’ cannot be understated.

Harvey won her second Mercury Prize and numerous Album Of The Year commemorations for her efforts, and while it was certainly timely with the Iraq War coming to an end that year, it is still frighteningly timeless; keep Syria or Palestine in mind when listening, and the effect is still the same.

“What will become of us?” – ‘River Anacostia’, 2016.

Then Harvey went international. Trips to Kosovo, Afghanistan, and Washington D.C. with photographer Seamus Murphy formed the template for her next project, ‘The Hope Six Demolition Project’, named after the HOPE VI projects of the U.S., where run-down public housing areas are demolished for ‘better housing’, and the former residents are left stranded. The people of the disappeared form the bulk of the imagery here like ghosts, bleeding through the cracks of the discordant, pulsing, droning rock that her band plays, her most rock album in years, echoing the swagger of, once again, Howlin’ Wolf and Captain Beefheart.

Harvey invited spectators to watch her band record the album in London’s Somerset House in 2015, just like she was a spectator to the effects of war and gentrification during her travels. And with her often dispassionate, oblique lyrics, it almost comes full circle, Harvey lamenting the act of history repeating itself; the United States says it seeks to remove the wounds of ‘dictators’ and crime, but only pours salt and leaves. Repeat ad infinitum, just as refrains are repeated to fade out frequently here. Perspective is a key theme throughout; in ‘The Community of Hope’, about the HOPE VI projects in the roughest neighbourhoods of Washington, she sings, “A well-known pathway of death / At least that’s what I’m told“. With ‘The Wheel’, Harvey watches children playing amongst the invisible ghosts of those that perished in the Kosovo War, singing ‘Now you see them, now you don’t’, amongst bruised saxophone.

The Hope Six Demolition Project’ is still a difficult record, perhaps her most difficult yet, in tone and concept, uncomfortable in its position. But it’s still undeniably PJ Harvey: difficult in tone and concept, uncomfortable in its position, but still swaggering on nonetheless.

Harvey will always be one to transform, to mould herself into however she sees fit. Always calculated, never the same. She has played all the roles, and will there’s still so much more ground for her to cover. But she’ll always be the blues-loving weirdo country gal from Dorset.

“Don’t you know yet who I am // Working harder for the man // Go around, I’m doing good // Get my strength from the man above.” – ‘Working For The Man’, 1995.

About The Author

Lee Whear

Young punk full of love, hoping they've got enough tobacco left when the revolution comes. Canterbury Christchurch University graduate, previous work has appeared in thnksfrthrvrw, Hitsville U.K., Bearded Magazine, and God Is In The TV Zine.