With a second Mercury Prize win for Let England Shake, PJ Harvey has once again struck a successful chord with critics and listeners. Let England Shake finds Harvey returning to the melodic magic last heard on her other Mercury Prize winning creation, Stories From the City, Stories From the Sea.
Her two albums between Stories and England, Uh Huh Her and White Chalk, had auspicious moments but neither garnered as much recognition.
Straddling many genres, utilizing varied instruments and performing in irregular vocal styles, Harvey has, for the most part, remained resourceful and inventive over the course of nine albums.
Raised on a sheep farm in Dorset, England, Harvey took up saxophone as a teen and was a member of three separate bands before she reached her twenties.
In 1988 Harvey joined the established Bristol band Automatic Dlamini. Founded by future Harvey collaborator John Parrish, Automatic Dlamini also featured Rob Ellis and Ian Oliver. After leaving that band, Harvey would team up with Ellis and Oliver; calling their group PJ Harvey.
"Nothing felt right or either suggested the wrong type of sound," Harvey said of the decision to perform under her name.
Oliver eventually decided to rejoin Automatic Dalmini and was replaced by Steve Vaughan. The trio played their first show in 1991, which ended in disaster.
"We started playing and I suppose there was about fifty people there. During the first song we cleared the hall. There was only about two people left. A woman came up to us, came up to my drummer, it was only a three piece, while we were playing and shouted at him 'Don't you realize nobody likes you! We'll pay you, you can stop playing, we'll still pay you!'"
Although their first outing was lacklustre, the trio pushed forward and released the single Dress via indie label Too Pure. Dress was voted single of the week by Melody Maker and soon after Sheela-Na-Gig was released to similar popularity. With sexually charged lyrics like "Look at these my child bearing hips/ Look at these my ruby red booby lips/ Put money in your idle hole," Sheela-Na-Gig would set the tone for PJ Harvey's debut album Dry.
Dry's sound is rooted in stripped down, post-punk riffs. From Happy and Bleeding to Plants and Rags, Harvey's debut is on par with the typical early '90s aesthetic. The album's closer Water (below) is a stand out, implementing a loud-quiet-loud outline. Kurt Cobain included Dry on his list of the 50 greatest albums of all time and it is also included in the book 1001 Albums You Must Hear Before You Die. In 2004, Harvey told Filter magazine that while recording Dry she thought it may have been her first and last album.
"Dry is the first chance I ever had to make a record and I thought it would be my last. So, I put everything I had into it. It was a very extreme record. It was a great joy for me to be able to make it. I never thought I'd have that opportunity, so I felt like I had to get everything on it as well as I possibly could, because it was probably my only chance. It felt very extreme for that reason."
RID OF ME (1993)
The trio's next album would find them ditching the (mostly) coherent melodies found on Dry for electric guitar distortion and an even more in-you-face sound. The title track would once again use the loud-quiet-loud outline coupled with Harvey's weirdo baby talk vocals with startling punk efficiency.
Written while recuperating from exhaustion brought on from touring for Dry, Rid of Me was labeled a feminist album by critics. After hearing the Pixies album Surfer Rosa, Harvey personally sought out producer Steve Albini to produce Rid of Me.
"I was really pleased with Rid of Me. For that period of my life, it was perfect," Harvey said.
Critics thought the album was perfect as well, but not just in the context of the '90s. In addition to being nominated for the Mercury Prize, they lost to Suede, Rolling Stone placed Rid of Me at #405 on their 500 Greatest Albums of All Time list and Spin ranked the album at #9 on their list of the 100 Greatest Albums of 1985-2005.
50 Ft. Queenie
TO BRING YOU MY LOVE (1995)
Less daring yet more complex than her previous efforts, To Bring You My Love is considered PJ Harvey's breakthrough album. Thanks to the massive, international success of the single Down By the Water, To Bring You My Love became PJ Harvey's best selling album.
During the Rid of Me tour, Harvey says she and her band mates began to grow apart and eventually called it quits; making To Bring You My Love the first true PJ Harvey solo album. Written in near isolation, the album's lyrics rely heavily on biblical imagery.
Critics across the board saw Harvey as their musical saviour of 1995. To Bring You My Love was named album of the year by People, The New York Times, Rolling Stone, USA Today and Hot Press. To Bring You My Love also earned Harvey her second Mercury Prize nomination. That year she lost to Portishead's Dummy.
Meet Ze Monsta
IS THIS DESIRE? (1998)
Trading personal confessions for fictitious themes, Is This Desire? has been labelled Harvey's blues record by many critics. There are few electric guitar riffs on this record. Instead you'll hear keyboards and acoustic bridges in the place of caustic punk sounds. The track A Perfect Day Elise became a popular single, rivalling the success of Down By the Water.
"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," Harvey told The Telegraph in 2004. "I gave 100 per cent of myself to that record. Maybe that was detrimental to my health at the same time."
STORIES FROM THE CITY, STORIES FROM THE SEA (2000)
My favourite PJ Harvey album, Stories is her love letter to New York City. The album opener Big Exit, is volatile and speaks of despair and suicide. Yet Stories also features downbeat, willowy tracks like Horses in My Dreams and One Line, and upbeat, hopeful entries like You Said Something, demonstrating Harvey's diversity. Some detractors said the lead single Good Fortune (below) was too much like mainstream pop for Harvey. I think the song, with its effortless hook and syllable repeating, is one of her best works.
"I want absolute beauty," Harvey told Q in 2001. "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."
Most critics declared the album a beautiful piece of work. Harvey finally won the Mercury Prize for Stories, beating out Gorillaz and Radiohead and becoming the first female solo artist to win the award.
I had always thought the ominous song This Mess We're In, a duet with Radiohead's Thom Yorke, sounded as if it were written about the attacks of 9/11. Yet the album was released before 2001, so obviously it is not a commentary on the tragedy. Oddly, the Mercury Prize winner was announced on 9/11. Harvey was in Washington DC and witnessed the attack on the Pentagon from her hotel room.
Accepting the prize via phone, Harvey said "It has been a very surreal day. All I can say is thank you very much, I am absolutely stunned."
UH HUH HER (2004)
Although less popular than Stories, Uh Huh Her was generally well received by critics. The gloss of Stories is gone but Uh Huh Her is not a total throwback to the low-fi days of Rid of Me. The album opener The Life and Death of Mr. Badmouth grabs the listener with a catchy stripped down, rock hook. Much of the album is sparse but this scarcity is usually successful. The Desperate Kingdom of Love, Pocket Knife and Shame are three such examples. However some songs, like Cat on the Wall and one track that is simply over one minute of seagulls, sound meagre and appear to lack effort. Harvey played virtually all of the instruments heard on Uh Huh Her and produced the album solo.
"I was looking for distressed, debased sounds," Harvey told Tracks magazine. "So all of the guitars are either tuned so low that it's hard to detect what notes they're playing or they're baritone guitars or they're played through the shittiest amps I could find."
WHITE CHALK (2007)
Although I wrote a review of this album in 2007, I strained to recall any of its songs while reminiscing for this post. I described it at the time as "so soft it's fucking talcum powder." White Chalk is PJ's piano album. Harvey learned the piano specifically for this album and while the music is softer, the themes remain as hard and eerie as ever.
When Under Ether
LET ENGLAND SHAKE (2011)
Let England Shake could be summed up as a anti-war concept album, yet the genre of this record isn't as easy to pinpoint. With autoharp, xylophones and the organ all making appearances, England sounds like PJ Harvey but broader and more layered than her other albums.
"I was really enjoying this different, enormous, wide breadth of sound that the autoharp gives. It's quite a delicate sound, but it's also like having an entire orchestra at your fingertips," Harvey told Bridport News earlier this year. "I began by writing quite a lot on the autoharp, and then slowly as time went by, my writing started moving into experimenting with different guitars, and using different sound applications, ones that I had never really experimented with."
Harvey once again pushes her voice to new heights, not unlike on White Chalk, but her soprano sounds better and more fitting on this album than it did on her previous effort.
After seeing Seamus Murphy's A Darkness Visible, she contacted the filmmaker "to speak to him more about his experiences being there in Afghanistan" and their collaboration gave birth to short films as music videos for the songs of Let England Shake.
At times the album is mordib; at other times it's symphonic. Let England Shake's complexity makes it one of Harvey's most well thought out collections.
Let England Shake
The Last Living Rose
The Words That Maketh Murder
The Glorious Land