PJ Harvey’s discography speaks for itself.
She inspired Kurt Cobain. She soundtracked the fury and malaise of ’90s third-wave feminism. She fraternized with Nick Cave and lost her blue-eyed girl in the river. She’s come to us with visions of bright new love and with the horrors of World War I. She’s lain with the devil and cursed God above.
And now she’s traveled the world, summoning scenes of poverty and conflict on the politically charged The Hope Six Demolition Project. While not her greatest record, it’s an ambitious project that evinces her refusal to settle into a predictable middle-age.
Harvey’s albums are agonizing to rank for obvious reasons: There are no bad ones, she has never made the same album twice, and the best of them rank among the greatest rock albums of my lifetime. So this was both a painful and gleefully fun exercise. Here’s to 25 more years.
12. A Woman A Man Walked By (2009)
PJ Harvey has never made a bad album. Anybody who tells you otherwise is not your friend. PJ Harvey has made one muddled, mediocre album, though, and it’s called A Woman A Man Walked By.
This is her second collaborative album with John Parish, 13 years after the underrated Dance Hall At Louse Point. Once again, Parish handles the music and Harvey the lyrics and vocals. Once again, the partnership brings Harvey further into the avant-garde realm than usual. And like Dance Hall, A Woman A Man Walked By was largely overshadowed by an acclaimed solo album released only a year and a half prior (in this instance, White Chalk). Compared with Dance Hall, these songs feel kind of limp.
A big part of this record’s disappointment is that it starts so strong: “Black Hearted Love” is a fabulous, dark-edged rocker that could have fit on Side A of Stories From The City. As an opener, it’s both brilliant and bewildering — nothing else on this album matches it or even slightly resembles it. From there, things slide into decent but undercooked avant-folk (“Sixteen, Fifteen, Fourteen,” “Leaving California”). Then Harvey tries on an irritating vocal affectation that brings White Chalk’s old-lady vibe to an ill-advised extreme (“April”). The title track’s menacing swagger is a nice change of pace, but it quickly fizzles into a directionless instrumental glop of organs and piano.
A Woman A Man Walked By feels caught awkwardly between the fury and hellfire of Harvey’s early work (“Pig Will Not” features our heroine barking like a dog) and the mournful air of White Chalk (“Cracks In The Canvas,” “April”). “The Soldier,” a wartime dream set to toylike piano twinkles, points the way to Let England Shake, though the puzzle pieces are just coming into focus. Not quite committing in either direction, it winds up being PJ Harvey’s most tentative and uneven work.
Let me restate this: PJ Harvey has never released a bad album. Her least vital work remains challenging, provocative and worthy of repeated listens. There’s a lot to admire about A Woman A Man Walked By, particularly its opening and closing tracks. But something had to occupy the bottom slot in this list, and this is that something.
11. 4-Track Demos (1993)
There are two great reasons to own 4-Track Demos: 1) You love Rid Of Me so much that you want to hear the work-in-progress demos (a good reason). 2) You want to hear PJ Harvey begin a song by demanding that Robert De Niro sit on her face (also a good reason).
4-Track Demos, as its title suggests, is not a studio LP but a collection of demos from 1991–1992. But PJ Harvey fans commonly assert that it’s a significant musical document (true) and perhaps even better than Rid Of Me proper (not true), so I’ve opted to include it in this ranking. The release lets you hear early, solo recordings of Rid Of Me cuts like “Ecstasy” and “50ft Queenie,” isolating Harvey’s bracing guitar work and showing off how fully written these tracks were before the band joined in. (Plus, check out that extended screech on “Snake.”) The real treat is the presence of strong non-album tracks, especially “Driving” and “Goodnight.”
The trouble with 4-Track Demos is all right there in the title: These are demos. Sketches. They’re not finished. And while Harvey would later find potential in skeletally sparse arrangements on White Chalk and parts of Uh Huh Her, her early material thrives on the bombastic energy her band brings. With all respect to the great Jay Leno performance, “Rid Of Me” isn’t quite the same without the rhythm section pummeling in on “Don’t you wish you / Never / Never met her.”
Put it this way: 4-Track Demos is an important document — and an essential one for serious fans — but the number of times I find myself reaching for it over Dry and Rid Of Me is small.
10. The Hope Six Demolition Project (2016)
Let me make two rather unfounded predictions about PJ Harvey’s new album, The Hope Six Demolition Project. 1) It will be greeted as her least-loved album in quite a while (as I write this, the earliest reviews are just rolling in). 2) History will be somewhat kinder to it in a decade or two.
The Hope Six Demolition Project arrives more than five years after Let England Shake (Harvey’s lengthiest gap by far), and if you come in expecting a White Chalk-style reinvention, you’ll be disappointed. Hope Six has a number of things in common with Let England Shake: an ambitious overarching concept; a focus on sociopolitical unrest instead of personal subjects; and an eclectic array of non-rock instrumentation, including samples, jazz elements, and male voices.
While England drew on reading materials on the history of conflict, Hope Six is essentially primary research, drawing on Harvey’s explorations with a war photographer in Washington D.C., Kosovo, and Afghanistan. Why? It’s a little hazy, though the jaunty, harmony-driven highlight “The Orange Monkey” offers this statement of intent: “I took a plane to a foreign land / And said I’ll write down what I found.” So the singer is in observational mode. She rattles off sights from a windshield tour of D.C. poverty on the rollicking “Community Of Hope,” trades stares with a poor elderly woman on the downtrodden “Chain Of Keys,” chronicles rundown sights near a government building on “The Ministry Of Defence.” Full of saxophone squalls, call-and-response choruses, and blues flourishes, the songs are some of Harvey’s most spirited in years. It’s nice to hear her rock out on “The Wheel” and “Medicinals,” however cerebral the material is.
What this album occasionally lacks is a consummate sense of purpose on par with the immensity of its topics. Harvey looks but rarely touches; she tells us what she sees but never extracts the visceral emotional engagement from her subjects that she does from, say, a disturbed, infanticidal mother in “Down By The Water.” Some have criticized Harvey for chronicling poverty without proposing solutions, but she’s writing songs, not running for elected office. These will provoke questions, if maybe not hope.
9. Let England Shake (2011)
Another left turn: Let England Shake is a folk-inspired song cycle about the horrors of war. Not so much today’s wars — the imagery summons the ghosts of World War I, with trenches and flies swarming about and soldiers “falling like lumps of meat.” Like Murder Ballads, the Nick Cave album she guested on 15 years prior, the album with the highest body count draws the highest raves: Let England Shake won near-universal acclaim, becoming the second PJ Harvey album to crack the UK Top 10 and the second album of hers to win the Mercury Prize. (She remains the only artist to have won the prize more than once.)
I’ll admit I’ve spent five years waiting for my opinion of this record to expand from “This is a neat and fascinating concept album about war” to “This is a masterpiece.” I’ll also admit my biggest gripe with Let England Shake is pretty simplistic: It’s the opener. The title track. It’s not very good! I don’t like the sluggish “Istanbul (Not Constantinople)” callback, I don’t like the off-key autoharp strumming, I don’t like the way the singer interjects the name “Bobby!” Harvey has brought us astonishing album openers from “Rid Of Me” to “The Devil.” Here she sinks into a plodding half-groove and lets it ride for three minutes. The lyrics are great (“Head out to the fountain of death and splash about?” Yes, please) but I’m stuck on that autoharp.
Harvey’s admirably committed to learning new instruments as a means of warding off stagnation. The novelty of the autoharp nudges Harvey away from the familiar (a good thing) but lacks the varied compositional range of the piano (a bad thing), leaving the evocative “All & Everyone” floundering in the battlefield dust. Thankfully, the rest of the album picks up in a major way, with highlights including a sing-songy death dirge (“The Words That Maketh Murder”), a brooding soldier’s lament (“In The Dark Places”), and a scathing hymn to the singer’s motherland (“England”). The songs are darkly bizarre, and satisfyingly so. “England, you leave a taste,” Harvey cries on the latter song, “a bitter one.” The album doesn’t go down so gentle either, but it’s worth the swig.
8. Dance Hall At Louse Point (1996)
Conversations about PJ Harvey’s discography tend to gloss over or ignore Dance Hall at Louse Point. “People don’t even count that,” Harvey told Jim DeRogatis, “yet that’s the record I’m really proud of.”
The album suffered a similar fate upon release in 1996. The reasons are obvious: 1) It’s credited to “John Parish & Polly Jean Harvey,” awarding Harvey a confusing second billing that differs from her stage name. 2) The singer was reportedly so exhausted after To Bring You My Love she didn’t bother promoting this one, letting the lesser-known Parish handle all interviews. 3) There’s nothing on here even close to a hit single to follow up “Down By The Water” (Harvey’s label bigwigs famously labeled the material “commercial suicide”). 4) The shows promoting the album took the form of a small club tour involving interpretative dancers, which began more than three months after the album’s release.
Now that that’s out of the way, the album was not “commercial suicide” — at least not in any long-term sense — and Harvey’s right: It is quite good. On Dance Hall, Harvey hands over the musical reigns to her former Automatic Dlamini bandmate John Parish, whose compositional instincts are nearly the opposite of that of Flood and other notable collaborators from this period. Parish doesn’t care for mood pieces and restraint — he favors chaos and clatter. Parish’s presence (he plays nearly every instrument) yields some of the most bracingly experimental material of Harvey’s career, from the creepily sinister spoken-word fantasy “Rope Bridge Crossing” to the mean blues-rocker “Heela.” These are messy, unstable compositions — Harvey’s early albums drew out the contrast between the tight rhythm section and the anarchy of her vocal performances, but here it’s pretty much all anarchy.
Which is to say, yes, Harvey’s lyrical and vocal contributions are harrowing, whether she’s yowling about abandonment on “City Of No Sun” or hissing in a hysterical whisper on “Taut.” She takes a more restrained tact for a haunting cover of Peggy Lee’s “Is That All There Is?”, which ought to have closed the record, 90-second “Lost Fun Zone” be damned. This is not Harvey’s most consistent outing straight through — I tend to place the endless “Un Cercle Autour Du Soleil” and bashing, sub-Beefheart title-track jam as needless indulgences. But the best moments are thrillingly rough around the edges, forming a neat bridge between Harvey’s raw, roaring early records and the more eclectic themes on her recent fare (see how “Civil War Correspondent” foreshadows Let England Shake).
If it can’t quite stand up to Rid Of Me and To Bring You My Love — well, the game was rigged. Prove Harvey wrong. Don’t count it out.
7. Uh Huh Her (2004)
In retrospect, it’s hard not to hear Stories From the City, Stories From The Sea and Uh Huh Her as flip sides of the same concept album. Stories depicts the euphoria and excitement of a new love; Uh Huh Her is the depressive episode after it all goes to hell. “Everything is poison,” Harvey moans in the first track. “Shame is the shadow of love,” she concludes one song later.
Shame, indeed, on anyone who thought Harvey would be rehashing Stories’ poppiest bits. After nearly four years between records, she took more or less the opposite tact. The visuals say a lot: That photo on the cover of Stories looked like a fashion ad; Uh Huh Her’s cover resembles a pissed-off polaroid. The glitter and glamour has been razed. Uh Huh Her has a mean edge to it, which emerges on the misanthropic stomp of “The Life & Death Of Mr. Badmouth” and the profanity-strewn outburst “Who The Fuck?” (sample couplet: “Who the fuck you tryna be? / Get your dog away from me!”).
This material lured some critics into characterizing Uh Huh Her as a return to Rid Of Me-style angst, though it’s not that at all. Rid Of Me was borne out of geographic isolation (a recording studio in remote Minnesota), while Uh Huh Her emerges from creative isolation: Harvey produced and recorded nearly every instrument on the album by herself. Far from Rid Of Me’s Albini-helmed explosiveness, Uh Huh Her sounds tinny and lonely, even when it’s rocking out: Check the razor-thin drum sound on “Cat On The Wall” or the vocal distortion that renders “Who The Fuck?” more suited for the bedroom than the arena. The guitars sound scuzzy but undeniably small, with Harvey playing them “through the shittiest amps I could find.” The downside of Harvey ditching her producers is that Uh Huh Her occasionally sounds uncertain and unfinished, with demo-like sketches taking the place of songs (“The End,” “No Child Of Mine”) and a minute-long recording of seagulls landing on the tracklist for no particular reason. There’s a searching, diaristic quality to the album that revels in its own incompleteness.
But the best songs are so delicate and sparse they risk fading into the atmosphere. The hush-voiced “Desperate Kingdom Of Love” and pitter-patter hallucination of “The Slow Drug” stand among Harvey’s strongest material from any album yet barely rise above a whisper. And the sequencing is deliberate: As Uh Huh Her progresses, fury fizzles into something resembling acceptance. There’s an overarching glimmer of peace on Uh Huh Her that those early albums never needed: “I’ll pick up the pieces / I’ll carry on somehow,” Harvey resigns on the lovely “The Darker Days Of Me & Him.” If PJ Harvey has already nursed you through a breakup before, that’s OK, because she’s really fucking good at it, and this is an album of Harvey doing what she’s fucking good at without anyone else’s creative vision getting in the way.
Uh Huh Her feels like a turning point in Harvey’s career: It’s the first album of hers that doesn’t break dramatically new ground and the last album where she was primarily operating within the confines of a rock artist. (If Uh Huh Her sounds a bit muted in this regard, the accompanying tour, as documented on the Please Leave Quietly DVD, definitely wasn’t.) It’s also the last album of hers to revolve around romantic heartbreak.
If not Harvey’s greatest work ever, Uh Huh Her is an important one. The LP firmly established two truths: 1) that Harvey is entirely capable of kicking out her collaborators and doing it all herself, should she desire; and 2) that however much she flirts with mainstream success, Harvey is always going to return to her anti-commercial instincts.
6. Dry (1992)
Dry is great. Dry is stronger than it has any right to be. In any reasonable universe, PJ Harvey should have had a mediocre or vaguely amateurish debut to her name. This we would point to as a product of inexperience and youth — something to humanize her, something along the lines of Slint’s Tweez or Sleater-Kinney’s self-titled.
Instead, at the age of 22, she entered a small Yeovil, England studio and recorded a near-instant classic. From the opening cry of “Oh, my lover!” the elements are in place: desire and violence, intermingled with those twisted slide-guitar licks and off-kilter time signatures. Plus, that voice. She hadn’t tried on screaming or falsetto yet, because she didn’t need it. There’s a sea of emotion in Harvey’s uttering of the single word “waa-aa-aater” (on the perfect and aptly named “Water”), an album’s worth of swagger in her delivery of the line “Look at these, my child-bearing hips!” (“Sheela-Na-Gig”). But PJ Harvey was a trio, not a solo act, in 1992, and so Rob Ellis’ inspired drumming and Steve Vaughan’s forceful bass riffs share the weight here. You’ve heard debut single “Dress,” which caught the attention of Melody Maker in ’91, but you may have forgotten how magnificently creepy that violin-assisted nightmare “Plants And Rags” really is.
Dry made an immediate impact: Island signed the group, NME ranked Dry among its all-time 100 albums (in 1993!), and Kurt Cobain, who didn’t live long enough to hear To Bring You My Love, famously listed it as one of his faves. So put it this way: Had PJ Harvey immediately quit music after making this disc, she wouldn’t be a household name, but you’d still see knowing record store clerks today pointing towards Dry and letting you know it’s real good shit.
But she didn’t quit. I guess you could critique Dry by saying it’s not as good as Rid Of Me, but what kind of pointless criticism is that? Of course it’s not as good as Rid Of Me. Nothing is as good as Rid Of Me. Your first-born child isn’t as good as Rid Of Me. Sure, Dry’s production is a little tinny and doesn’t pack the full-body wallop of, say, “Ecstasy,” but there wasn’t time! Harvey didn’t have Island covering the bill or Albini manning the boards. She needed to get these songs out of her system, out into the world. And honestly, what a confident and fully formed first batch of songs this is.
5. White Chalk (2007)
PJ Harvey appears on the cover of White Chalk in a white, custom-made dress modeled after late 18th-century fashion. She looks grim and ghostly pale. Her hair is frizzy and unkempt, signaling some emotional distress. She remained perfectly still for the shot; it’s reminiscent of the early photography era. She is barely recognizable.
It’s a nice visual signifier for the astounding transformation Harvey takes on her eighth studio album. PJ Harvey knew next to nothing about playing the piano, so naturally she decided to write an entire album around the piano, including a tension-filled song called (yes) “The Piano.” The songs are brief, stark, and eerie. They revolve around circular, almost childlike piano figures, muted percussion and a preoccupation with the vulnerabilities of the human voice. Harvey sings in a high, keening register that occasionally boils over into a wail (check those last instants of “The Mountain”).
The ghostly specter of the album art suits a record haunted by ghosts both named and imagined. Much of White Chalk revolves around loss and mourning. On “To Talk To You,” Harvey addresses a departed grandmother in a quivering falsetto. “Silence” is haunted by places where memories remain, while on “The Piano,” she cries out, repeatedly: “Oh God, I miss you!”
Elsewhere, the record addresses devil possession and — on the gorgeous title track — “a path cut 1500 years ago” in Harvey’s English hometown. That’s fitting — White Chalk feels like an artifact from some distant past. It has a gothic Victorian edge that’s remarkably convincing for an album recorded by a 37-year-old in 2007. As Harvey herself said, “it doesn’t feel of this time right now, but I’m not sure whether it’s 100 years ago or 100 years in the future.” The only track that falls short is the demo-like harp experiment “Broken Harp.”
White Chalk is a weird, singular gem. It’s quiet but captivating. It’s unlike any other record in her catalog, and it’s not much like any record in anyone else’s catalog either. That Harvey attempted this project at all is a testament to her creative restlessness. That she managed to pull it off reveals her outsized talent.
4. Stories From The City, Stories From The Sea (2000)
Stories From The City, Stories From The Sea is PJ Harvey’s big, glistening pop album. If Is This Desire? emerged from a point of harrowing uncertainty — “Is this desire / Enough, enough?” — Stories finds the same singer unambiguously smitten: “This is love, this is love, that I’m feeling!” Harvey swoons on “This Is Love.” The guitars are crisp, Harvey’s vocals soar brighter and prettier than previously seemed possible, and the sleek, night-out-in-Manhattan album cover is pretty much a photonegative of the Rid Of Me shot. Even now it’s a little hard to believe this exists in the context of Harvey’s otherwise angsty discography.
Good luck figuring out who or what inspired the lovestruck mood (Harvey keeps private life private, though rumors point to a fling with filmmaker Vincent Gallo), but the stylistic 180 wasn’t accidental. “I wanted everything to sound as beautiful as possible,” Harvey told Q Magazine at the time, noting that she’d spent the prior few albums “experimenting with some dreadful sounds.” Though poppy by contrast, Stories is hardly a Max Martin production — “The Whores Hustle And The Hustlers Whore” is as seedy as its name suggests, Thom Yorke brings a ghostly shadow to “One Line” and “Beautiful Feeling,” and the whole thing has an aggressive, guitar-heavy edge. It helps that the songwriting is uniformly fantastic, from the exuberant, Patti Smith wail of “Good Fortune” (“I feel the innocence of a child,” Harvey exclaims) to the brooding “Horses In My Dreams.”
A drastic departure from Harvey’s nineties output, Stories split fans and critics into two basic camps. There were plenty who derided it as sell-out record, with a Pitchfork reviewer going so far as to call it “just slightly to the right of the dead middle ground.” And then others who greeted it as her masterpiece — Stories garnered two Grammy nods, dozens of best-of-list slots, and the 2001 Mercury Prize. (Harvey accepted that award on September 11, 2001, a coincidence that feels notable given how much of Stories plays like a pre-9/11 love letter to New York City.)
Neither extreme was quite right. Stories From The City, Stories From The Sea is indeed a laudable and beautifully made record, though not a complete match for the pathos of Rid Of Me and To Bring You My Love. It’s the first album of hers that’s designed to win you over with stellar songcraft and self-assured performances instead of bowling you over the head with its intensity. I love this record, because of and not despite its radio-ready euphoria. With the benefit of hindsight, fears that the album marked a sellout moment seem silly — Harvey went right back to making stark, polarizing records as soon as the Mercury Prize-coated dust settled. So you can love it without worrying that PJ Harvey has permanently left the darkness behind, which you should, because it’s the most frankly lovable album she has ever written.
Stories was the first PJ Harvey album you were as likely to find in your dad’s Volvo as caked in grime under your goth friend’s bed. Given what preceded it, you’d be crazy to call it PJ Harvey’s masterpiece — but you’d be crazier to deny its greatness.
3. To Bring You My Love (1995)
PJ Harvey’s first major reinvention, To Bring You My Love finds PJ Harvey (the singer) in the ashes of PJ Harvey (the band — not-so-amicably dissolved) and in the good graces of critics, who swooned over this new, technicolor iteration of PJ Harvey (the solo artist).
Confused? It’s the oldest story in rock: Singer strikes out solo, proves she didn’t need her bandmates in the first place. In Harvey’s case, she spent some of her last months with bandmates Ellis and Vaughan on tour with Zooropa-era U2, ultimately pinching not only U2’s manager but their then-producer, Flood — pretty much the polar opposite of Albini’s brutalistic minimalism. The result is Harvey’s first foray into the realm of production, a seductive tone poem of mood and melodrama. This ushered in Harvey’s most visually memorable period; just as she began bringing in ball gowns, makeup, and theatrical prop into her stage show, she was bringing organs, strings, keyboards, and vibraphones onto her songs. To Bring You My Love is a dizzying coming-out party for Harvey’s varied and flamboyant personas. If Rid Of Me was like one sustained banshee wall, the follow-up contains multitudes.
Which is not to say there isn’t an overarching concept: To Bring You My Love is more concerned with the immensity of human longing and desire than just about any album out there, including the one Harvey later made with “desire” in the title. Song titles say a lot: “To Bring You My Love,” “Send His Love To Me,” “C’mon Billy,” “Darling Be There” (a b-side). Much of TBYML is about crossing borders and desert plains and oceans and laying with the devil and cursing God above for the sake of connection. “She’s singing about transcending,” Tom Breihan noted in his 20th anniversary tribute to the album, “about moving beyond physical concerns, finding the place where love and desire turn mystical.” Harvey is a being possessed — “Raise me up, lord / Call me Lazarus,” she intones on the pummeling “Long Snake Moan,” which, like several others here, draws heavily on old delta blues.
But even if you don’t know what Harvey is singing about — I didn’t when I first stumbled across this album at age 13, though I could tell she really fucking meant it — the songs sound absolutely formidable. (The “Meet Ze Monsta” riff hits so hard; it’s the type of thing you imagineblasting as you’re lowered into the grave.) Listening back on To Bring You My Love two decades later, it’s remarkable how well it flirts with and builds upon stylistic trends of the mid-’90s without sounding even the least bit dated. There’s icy-cool trip hop (“Working For The Man”), industrial blues stomp (“Meet Ze Monsta”), orchestral-acoustic shuffle (“Send His Love To Me”), none of it campy or half-baked. “Down By The Water” was the hit, and it holds up, its underwater video and fuzzed-out organ riff both creeping out the kids on MTV and pointing the way to Is This Desire?
A whole lot of people consider this album to be Harvey’s shining achievement, and while there are other LPs I just barely prefer (we’re getting there), it is hard to argue with the assertion. To Bring You My Love is mighty. It’s her most varied, splendorous and melodramatic work, a whole career’s worth of ideas in just 10 songs. It’s what you play your friend who wants to get a sense of Harvey’s range and only has time for one disc. And, most importantly, it brought us the creepiest, most alluring refrain of the alt-rock era. You know it, that harrowing whisper:
“Little fish, big fish, swimming in the water / Come back here, man, gimme my daughter.”
2. Is This Desire? (1998)
This will probably be the most controversial ranking on this list. Is This Desire? isn’t a particularly well-loved album, even among some PJ Harvey fans. I adore it. I think it’s her forgotten masterpiece. Let me explain.
Desire emerged from a particularly tormented period in Harvey’s history. Exhausted from the To Bring You My Love cycle and reeling from the collapse of a brief, stormy love affair with Nick Cave (which evidently inspired songs on his own album The Boatman’s Call), she retreated back to Yeovil to record some new songs. Listening back on “My Beautiful Leah,” a bleak ditty that coils around a gnarled, distorted bass loop, she became spooked by her own music — especially the lyrics, which tell of a girl haunted by nightmares. “I listened back to that song and I thought, ‘No! This is enough! No more of this,'” she told The Guardian. “I wanted to get help.” According to the biography Siren Rising, Harvey at this point told friends she was quitting music to become a nurse. Instead, she entered therapy, moved into a monastic flat and wrote the most unsettling and lonely album of her career.
Desire’s sense of adventure and inky-black intensity is frankly remarkable: Every track grabs by the gut and takes you somewhere, though it’s not necessarily somewhere you want to be. It’s not pretty music. Harvey herself has characterized it as “a very, very difficult, difficult record to make” and one that was borne out of “a particularly difficult time in my life.” “Leah” convulses with aural dread until it abruptly collapses. “Joy,” with its clanging industrial cacophony, has more in common with NIN’s Downward Spiral than Harvey’s blues forbears.
The critical consensus sometimes treats Desire as though it were an outlier in Harvey’s discography, a black-sheep album where she scurries too far down the goth rabbit-hole, which is odd, given that Desire plays like a natural (if intense) progression from To Bring You My Love, taking the noir textures and bass-centered minimalism of “Working For The Man” to an extreme. The album can be most unsettling when it’s at its quietest (see: “Electric Light,” with its gaping empty spaces). “Catherine,” muffled as if sung through a thick sweater, is the sort of song you breeze past a dozen times without noticing, until the one day its haunting evocation of murderous envy stops you cold. (That’s true of the album in general; I owned it for years before it clicked with startling intensity during a particularly lonely stretch of college.)
The songs favor character over confession — Harvey takes on frightful literary personas as avatars of her isolation, whether it’s a prostitute aching for redemption (“Angelene”) or a disabled shut-in from a Flannery O’Connor story (“Joy”). She goes full trip-hop on “The Wind,” envisioning herself as Saint Catherine, abandoned up in that chapel, in an icy whisper. PJ Harvey has never committed to an aesthetic with such unnerving intimacy. If you’re in the right state for this sort of gothic depression, this record is a potent drug.
In the years since, Harvey hasn’t released anything that sounds even remotely like Is This Desire? Maybe because she hasn’t been in the headspace to produce anything this harrowing (Stories certainly sounds like an emergence from darkness). Or maybe because of the album’s mixed reception compared with To Bring You My Love. Or maybe because Desire pushed Harvey’s sound towards such singular sonic extremes that there wasn’t much point in rehashing it.
Still, it’s nice to know that Harvey herself has strong affection for the album locked away. “I do think Is This Desire? is the best record I ever made — maybe ever will make — and I feel that that was probably the highlight of my career,” she later told the Sun Telegraph. “I gave 100 percent of myself to that record. Maybe that was detrimental to my health at the same time.”
1. Rid Of Me (1993)
This is the one. This is where it all clicks: love, sex, death, fury, a bleeding penis, the brutal Steve Albini drum sound. Rid Of Me is not just PJ Harvey’s masterpiece but one of the greatest, scariest rock albums of the alternative era, or of any era.
The story is this: Dry commenced a label bidding war, Harvey signed with Island and handpicked recording maestro Albini to keep things raw, and the group quickly set to work rehearsing the disturbing songs Harvey had jotted down while living in “a horrible, horrible little flat” in Tottenham. Rid Of Me was recorded over the course of two weeks in a secluded Minnesota studio in the middle of winter. Bandmate Rob Ellis has described the atmosphere as “completely isolated”: “Just the five of us in the middle of nowhere in Minnesota, in this big old house, in the winter, in a snowbound wood… There was nothing around. We didn’t leave.” Steve Albini likes to claim that Harvey ate nothing but potatoes while recording the album, and while I have no idea if this claim is true, it’s a testament to Rid Of Me’s intensity that I’m willing to believe anything.
The result is scary-good, which is to say it’s so good it’s scary, yes, but also that it’s so scary it’s good. The title track, with its livid explosions and gasped threats of tying up legs and twisting off heads, is like a roadmap for Harvey’s 14-minute funhouse of anguish. “At that time, I very much wanted to write songs that shocked,” Harvey recalled to SPIN two decades later. “When I wrote ‘Rid Of Me,’ I shocked myself.”
So she made Dry look like kid stuff. Shock is one potential medical reaction to Harvey’s harrowing lyrical terrain, which channels lovesick abandonment and alienation into violent and occasionally homicidal imagery. She’ll tie you down (“Rid Of Me”) and cut off your legs (“Legs”) and stick needles in her voodoo doll (“Yuri-G”) and stroke your manhood until it bleeds (“Rub ‘Til It Bleeds”) and douse hair with gasoline and set it alight (“Man-Size”). And then she’ll add insult to injury and tell you you leave her dry, as on the delectable, slide-assisted “Dry.”
It’s heavy stuff — Elvis Costello famously remarked that these songs are “about blood and fucking” — but Harvey’s feminist howl is well-primed for these lurid subjects and more. It’s this album that established Harvey as one of rock’s most powerful singers. She broods and then shouts and then shrieks on the title track, lets her voice shatter into shards of anguish on “Legs,” impressively navigates more melodic terrain on “Dry,” and lets out a gargle from hell on the frenzied “Snake.” The scuzzy noise of “Hook” and Zeppelin-level cacophony of “Ecstasy” threaten to drown her out, but she’s still heard. Albini’s recording techniques are harsh and extreme and sometimes maligned for their harsh extremes, but it’s the best representation of Harvey’s psyche, giving her songs massive dynamic range and letting Ellis’ drums pound through with unbelievable clarity.
Rid Of Me proves disturbingly relatable to anybody who’s ever been hurt by love, which is everybody, but it’s not the sort of album you casually spin while going for a drive. Truth be told, I don’t listen to it very often anymore — it’s too draining. It’s for moments when you crave all-consuming catharsis. Sometimes it’s enough just to know that this album exists. That it’s there waiting, for when you need to douse hair with gasoline, set it light and set it free.