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PJ Harvey

From indie “queenie” to regular Brit/Grammy/Mercury (Prize) awards nominee, the outstanding talent and phenomenal rise of Yeovil artist Polly Jean has left one thinking: where did it all go right? With several seminal solo albums (and a couple of John Parish collaborations) under her belt, the singer-songwriter has fashioned her own inimitable rise to superstardom without bending to the pressures of the music industry.
Born Polly Jean Harvey, 9th October 1969, Bridport in Dorset, England, Polly was raised on a farm in Corscombe (near Yeovil) by her bohemian music-loving mother and father, one a sculptor, the other a stonemason. Having mastered a string of instruments at her local school in Beaminster, her first taste of the limelight was as saxophone player with instrumental ensemble, Boulogne; her next (also as songwriter) was when she teamed up with folk trio The Polekats.
After a time studying visual arts at Yeovil College, HARVEY upped roots in July ’88 to join Bristol-based indie collective, Automatic Dlamini, who’d been around for some five years, delivering the odd EP or two. Among their ranks was Headless Horsemen alumni Rob Ellis (drums) and the aforementioned John Parish (guitar, ex-Thieves Like Us), while loose member Ian Olliver (bass) duly became part of the PJ HARVEY trio/band at the start of 1991. One can hear her “additional vocals” on several tracks from their subsequent sophomore set, `From A Diva To A Diver’ (1992), while her dulcet tones turned up on Grape’s limited platter, `Baby In A Plastic Bag’ and two tracks by The FAMILY CAT: `Colour Me Grey’ and `River Of Diamonds’.
By this stage, Polly had already formed her own self-named outfit, PJ HARVEY (with Ellis and Olliver), signing for the esteemed Too Pure roster in ‘91. Featuring Polly on vocals, their first release `Dress’ immediately caught the attention of John Peel and achieved the dubious honour of a Melody Maker Single Of The Week. A driving, primal howl of a record, it introduced HARVEY’s lyrical preoccupation with the darker corners of female sexuality, a theme that continued with `Sheela-Na-Gig’ (the latter without Olliver who’d been superseded by Stephen Vaughan), which reached the Top 75. Costing as little as £3,000, there was enough of a buzz around for their debut set, DRY (1992) {*8}, to reach the fringes of the Top 10.
HARVEY’s impact had been immediate, her raw, defiantly individual interpretation of feminism sparking much debate in the music press, especially after an NME cover shot in which she appeared topless, although back to the camera. The album itself highlighted Polly’s particular biblical ballads, while her broody backers belted out bruised blues like there was no tomorrow. Alongside the aforementioned singles, stand-out tracks were beefy opener, `Oh My Lover’, the PATTI SMITH-esque `O Stella’, `Water’ and `Victory’.
Subsequently signing to Island Records, PJ HARVEY began working with Steve Albini on the follow-up, RID OF ME (1993) {*8}, which went Top 3 upon its release. As one might expect from the man who gave us “Songs About F**king” a la BIG BLACK, Albini’s production didn’t exactly make for an easy listen, HARVEY turning in her most ferocious performance to date. With the likes of the opening title track, `Legs’, `Man-Size’ and `50 Ft Queenie’ (the latter two also minor hits), the singer continued to explore the contradictory and unsavoury aspects of sexuality/relationships with unparalleled feminine fury; an almost unrecognisable re-vamp of DYLAN’s `Highway ’61 Revisited’ proved the lady was willing to sacrifice substance for uncompromising avant-pop – she’d been a big fan of Beefheart.
Stripped nearly bare of Albini (she also posed in her underwear on the cover shoot), 4-TRACK DEMOS (1993) {*7}, was, as it said on the tin, a deliberate attempt to let others judge both versions of her previous classic.
Following the departure of Ellis, the solo HARVEY assembled a backing band that included her Dlamini buddy Parish (guitars), Nick Bagnall (keyboards/bass), Joe Gore (guitar), former CAPTAIN BEEFHEART alumnus Eric Feldman (keyboards) and Jean-Marc Butty (drums). In 1995, with Flood and Bad Seed MICK HARVEY sharing production duties, she unleashed her finest work to date, TO BRING YOU MY LOVE {*9}, which also hit the US Top 40 and was nominated for a Mercury Award. A more balanced affair, the record spawned three UK Top 40 hits by way of `Down By The Water’, `C’Mon Billy’ and `Send His Love To Me’. HARVEY’s dark rage chose to simmer below the surface this time around, creating the feeling of creeping unease that runs through much of NICK CAVE’s work (her new acquaintance!?); coincidentally, her next chart entry was a “Murder Ballads” duet, `Henry Lee’, with the Bad Seeds boss.
In 1996, billed as Polly Jean Harvey, she gave stalwart colleague JOHN PARISH a full credit on their own joint album, DANCE HALL AT LOUSE POINT {*5}, which sold relatively poorly. Shared songwriting duties and production led to why the songstress credited guitarist John lead artist, although the praise for her previous jewel was probably a bit unsettling. Recalling SIOUXSIE in her heyday, minor hit `That Was My Veil’, `Civil War Correspondent’ and the maniacal, Beefheart-esque `Taut’ were obvious starting points for fans.
As well as featuring on TRICKY’s `Broken Homes’ single, 1998 saw the release of IS THIS DESIRE? {*5}, the singer’s most introspective, inscrutable work to date. Recorded amid a period of retreat from the vagaries and distractions of the rock world, the album’s relatively restrained textures suggested an artist in transition. Written in isolation holed up in Yeovil, the songs were rather sketchy and insular, but unlike many of her previous efforts, there was little here to ignite the fire; even Top 30 singles such as `A Perfect Day Elise’ and `The Wind’ were blunt beyond belief.
Time spent in the Big Apple and the English countryside had their effect on Polly’s more polished set, the widely acclaimed STORIES FROM THE CITY, STORIES FROM THE SEA (2000) {*8}, an album – and a Mercury prize contender – with the energy of New York (where it was partly written) and the visceral thrill of self discovery coursing through its glamorous veins. Many commentators mentioned PATTI SMITH, a reference that HARVEY would be unlikely to dispute given the cathartic power she wielded throughout. Examples of her flighty flourishes could be drawn from `Big Exit’, `Horses In My Dreams’ and her THOM YORKE duet, `This Mess We’re In’, while three hits (`Good Fortune’, `A Place Called Home’ and `This Is Love’) kept up her chart momentum.
Given her track record of collaborations (everyone from JOHN PARISH to NICK CAVE to SPARKLEHORSE), it wasn’t too surprising when the West Country troubadour made her mark on Volumes 9 & 10 of Josh Homme’s extracurricular QUEENS OF THE STONE AGE “Desert Sessions” series; a single `Crawl Home’ almost grazed the UK Top 40 in late 2003. There was further work for former VIOLENT FEMMES leader Gordon Gano on his `Hitting The Ground’ set and GIANT SAND’s `Cover Magazine’ album, both released in 2002.
Remarkably, perhaps, for such a fiercely independent artist, UH HUH HER (2004) {*7} was the singer’s first self-produced, self-contained album for well over a decade. HARVEY played all the instruments herself (save for the drums), lending the record a stripped-down, off-kilter feel while retaining her experimental edge. With songs such as the subtle-as-a-sledgehammer `Who The Fuck?’, the horizontal `You Come Through’, the Latin-tinted `Shame’ and one of three hits, `The Letter’, this lady was not for turning – back. Her partisan fanbase ensured at least a few weeks’ residence in both the UK and US Top 30, while PJ lent some of her creative fire to MARIANNE FAITHFULL’s `Before The Poison’, later in the year.
Almost funereal in its piano-led compositions, the haunting and eerie WHITE CHALK (2007) {*8} – depicting PJ in a ghostly bright-white costume – was her darkest and most fragile yet. Keeping her tender vox to a minimalist whimper rather than shouting from a parapet, her murder-type ballads tended to challenge the listener more than entertain. But its gothic-folk appeal, however unsettling, was both chilling and inspirational, the Ouija board exercises best captured on the likes of `Grow Grow Grow’, `The Mountain’, `The Devil’ and `Dear Darkness’; `The Piano’ and `When Under Ether’ failed to register in a download-biased chart. “White Chalk” is truly a record to go back to time after time – but not for the faint of heart.
Balancing her knife-edge previous concept, PJ HARVEY & JOHN PARISH saddled up with their second collaboration, A WOMAN A MAN WALKED BY (2009) {*7}. Taking sinister melodrama as their musical template, the JIMMY PAGE-like strums of this JP complemented the breathlessness of PJ on the jangly `Sixteen, Fifteen, Fourteen’, while the mournful `Passionless, Pointless’ and closer `Cracks In The Canyon’ drew on picturesque landscapes of a desolate American backdrop rather than her hometown of Yeovil – though one’s never been to either.
With her bold, chameleon-like vox in place, LET ENGLAND SHAKE (2011) {*8} possessed Polly’s political prowess in one fell swoop. Recorded in Dorset with long-time associates Flood, PARISH and MICK HARVEY lending a hand, history, battle scenes and death are given her singular playground twist, while one can almost taste the blood in the wind of thousands of her long-lost countrymen. A subverted concept piece, `The Words That Maketh Murder’ (with more than a nod to a blind horse in its lyrically-twisting “Summertime Blues”-cloned words) had a certain tightrope-over-a-precipice feeling as joyful music intertwined with solemnity. The pomp-driven drumbeat of `The Last Living Rose’ and `England’ (with its Constantinople-market backdrop) and the title track were three others to draw in the listener, although it was down to HARVEY’s best record of her lifetime, the SANDY DENNY-esque `On Battleship Hill’ that had one’s heart in knots.
Rife anticipation and rich reviews ensured the 5-year wait for PJ HARVEY’s follow-up album, THE HOPE SIX DEMOLITION PROJECT (2016) {*8}, would grace the top spot – her first to do so in a 25-year-career lifespan. Given a deserved MBE in 2013 (“Let England Shake” indeed), perennial/political poet PJ rallied her usual suspects (John P, Flood and Mick H) to lend a doom-monger gloom to her cleansing-of-the-soul sonorous sonnets and sonic spirituals; `River Anacostia’ and `Near The Memorials To Vietnam And Lincoln’. Stabbing at the veins of world politics via her cynical lyrical-waxing, `The Orange Monkey’ came close to updating The SPECIALS’ musical manifesto of the early 80s, while she let loose her angst and frustrations on `The Ministry Of Defence’ (featuring the great LINTON KWESI JOHNSON) and the poor women of Kosovo witnessing the walls of their neighbours demolished. From the sarcastically-positive `The Community Of Hope’, to the strident and polyrhythmic `Medicinals’, Polly pounded her drum of despair, just as `The Wheel’ reached out to the 28,000 disappearing children every year.
Following on from her first 7-inch released in America (the double-header: `A Dog Called Money’ & `I’ll Be Waiting’), a brace of downloads, namely a benefit single for children escaping the Syrian Civil War, `The Camp’ (crediting Ramy Essam), and the theme to “Dark River”, `An Acre Of Land’ (alongside Harry Escott), HARVEY wandered evermore so off the beaten track and into soundtrack territory.
Almost swept under the proverbial carpet, as with many stage adaptations, PJ HARVEY’s partly instrumental re-score (based on composer Franz Liszt’s “Liebestraumme”) of the Ivo van Hove-directed London theatre production of ALL ABOUT EVE (2019) {*6} made little impact as a commercial entity. Experimental and complex, Polly left the singing to leading stars Gillian Anderson (as Margo Channing) and Lily James (as Eve Harrington), who were more than adequate on respective turns, `The Sandman’ and `The Moth’. HARVEY once again worked with James Johnston and sticksman Kenrick Rowe; the best bits stirring from opener `Becoming’ and `Descending’.
In keeping with PJ’s newly-found allegiance to stage & screen music, she duly surpassed herself in this competitive field with the theme tune (`The Crowded Cell’) to Shane Meadows’ controversial Channel 4 serial drama, `The Virtues’; a truly emotional and jarring 3-minute classic that should surely become a contender for track of the year.
© MC Strong 1994-2006/GRD // rev-up MCS Aug2012-Jun2019

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