Polly Jean Harvey is now two decades into a pretty remarkable run, one that’s kept her singular voice intact while roaming all over an aesthetic landscape that she’s invented for herself. She’s been an avenging scrape-rock demon on Rid Of Me, a mysterious and glamorous torch-blues ingenue on To Bring You My Love, a cinematic synth-goth on Is This Desire?, an unapologetically joyous modern-rock god on Stories From The City, Stories From The Sea, a dark piano expressionist on White Chalk — just a few of the roles she’s played. Freshman year of college, I got furiously mad at a kid on my dorm hall who claimed that he didn’t like PJ Harvey; my argument was that you couldn’t possibly not like her based on one song or one album, not when she became a different person every time out. I know people who make the case, justifiably, that last year’s war koan Let England Shake is her best album. And though I prefer the chiffon stomach-churn of To Bring You My Love, the fact that she was still making some of her best work 19 years in is a stunning thing. But despite all the territory she’s covered in the past couple of decades, she arrived as a stark, powerful, fully-formed presence on her very first album. Dry, that seismic debut, celebrates the 20th anniversary of its American release this week, and it deserves some serious love.
Here’s something insane: Harvey was 22 when she released Dry. After leaving her rural England home, she’d spent a couple of disappointing years in another band, and she didn’t see a whole lot of future for her own trio. When the British indie Too Pure snapped up the “Dress” single on the strength of a mailed-in demo, she was getting set to quit music to study sculpture at St. Martin’s College, like the girl from Pulp’s “Common People.” Her young age isn’t what’s insane; plenty of people release great music at that age, or younger. What’s nuts is that she ever considered doing anything else, that her confidence ever wavered. Because Dry is not the work of a part-timer. It’s an all-in moment; Harvey spares nothing on it. It’s the rare album where depth and ferocity and wisdom all find some ideal fulcrum point. It’s a mid-period Bad Seeds album, recorded by a version of Nick Cave who’s actually a British girl who isn’t yet old enough to rent a car — except that it’s more fully realized than any mid-period Bad Seeds album.
I remember reading a few mainstream-press write-ups of Harvey’s first couple of albums that attempted to place her within the riot grrrl scene, something that was specious then and downright risible in retrospect. Harvey and, say, Kathleen Hanna attacked a few of the same ideas of gender through their music, but they did it in ways that couldn’t have been more different. Hanna was part of a scene, a group of women taking the musical vocabulary of the hardcore punk that they knew and making the conscious decision to use it as a battering ram. She and her confederates had a very concrete goal, to open punk rock up to female voices, and she said exactly what she was thinking, except when she was being sarcastic, and it wasn’t exactly tough to tell when that was happening. Harvey sounded like a punk sometimes, but that was a purely accidental thing. She was a woman without a scene, a rural artists’ kid whose models were her parents’ old psych-blues records. And her gender was only important insofar as it was new, and powerful, to hear a woman singing about the same naked desperation that characterized so many of those records.
The first words on Dry: “Oh my lover, don’t you know it’s all right? / You can love her / You can love me at the same time.” This isn’t some male-gaze titillation thing; it’s a sad and troubled young woman wondering to herself how she’s going to hang onto this fucking guy and coming up with a tragically self-negating answer. That sort of thinking is all over the album. On “Dress,” she’s got herself all wrapped up in an uncomfortable tight thing, pushing herself into extreme discomfort to catch somebody’s eye. On “Sheela-Na-Gig,” she’s straight up describing all the most alluring parts of herself, describing herself like a piece of prize cattle, and getting rebuffed in the process. It’s an album about wanting human connection so badly that you debase and dehumanize yourself to get it, and it gets its power from the discomfiting and intense recognizability of those sentiments, and from how harsh and furious the music is.
I was lucky enough to hear Dry and Rid Of Me (which, amazingly, followed only a year later) when they were still new, and when I was just 12 or 13. I had a friend named Lee, whose dad would probably be called a hipster now. Lee’s dad had apparently come into some big settlement after a doctor’s car hit his motorcycle, and he used a piece of that settlement to assemble a CD collection that was like nothing I’d ever seen before. And he shared all his music with Lee, so you’d go into Lee’s room and find Pavement’s Slanted And Enchanted and the Butthole Surfers’ Independent Worm Saloon mixed in with all the Aerosmith and Jackyl CDs. I used to sit in his room and just make mixtapes for hours, and I would dearly love to find those tapes now; they probably had “Sheela-Na-Gig” next to, like, Ugly Kid Joe’s “Everything About You.” I loved the shit out of those first two Harvey albums, especially “Sheela-Na-Gig” and “50 Ft. Queenie” — not because their portrayal of gender politics moved me, but because they just absolutely rocked.
That’s an important thing to remember about those first two albums: Harvey and her trio roared and churned in ways that a 12-year-old could understand. Her rhythm section knew how to lurch and grind, and she knew her way around hard-ass riffs and big moments, like when the out-of-step drums and violin-scrapes on the “Dress” into suddenly snap into focus. Harvey played violin as well as guitar, and on Dry, her discordant violin sawing offset her fuzzed-out riff steamrollers beautifully. And even though her lyrics couldn’t possibly be any more vulnerable, she always sounded like a gargoyle making promises of worldwide annihilation. That friction between voice and words drives the album. But even if you take it out of the equation — if, say, you’re a sheltered kid and you have no idea what she’s singing about — it still works as a straight-up rock album. And even though she’s done even greater things in the years since, Dry isn’t just an early-warning shot. It’s a tremendous album that demands to be heard.
But what about you guys? What’s your favorite PJ Harvey album? Favorite song from Dry? Favorite memory that the album conjured? And while you’re thinking about that, here are some videos.