“Down by the Water,” “Man-Size,” “C’Mon Billy”
Who Is She?
One of the most prolific female songwriters the ‘90s could have spawned.
Polly Jean Harvey surrounded herself with music at a young age. Her parents introduced her to blues, jazz, and art rock as a child-- genres that would heavily influence most of her own music.
At the tender age of 17, Polly joined a band from Bristol called Automatic Dlamini. She toured with the band through Europe and even contributed backing vocals and some guitar to Automatic Dlamini’s only album, Here Catch, Shouted His Father (which was never officially released).
Polly didn’t sing very much during her initial venture into music. She did, however, learn to play a mean guitar and began developing her own unique stage presence. Thank fellow band mate and “musical soul mate” John Parish for that.
After Automatic Dlamini dissolved in 1991, Polly formed her own band. And what name did she settle on? Her own, of course. The band PJ Harvey consisted of Polly on vocals and guitars, Rob Ellis on drums, and Ian Olliver on bass (all three of whom had previously worked together in Automatic Dlamini).
The trio released its debut single “Dress” in October 1991 to generally positive reviews. Dry, the band’s first LP, was released in 1992. To give you an idea of how great it was, I’ll just mention the fact that Kurt Cobain listed it in top 20 favorite albums ever (a list that appeared in the book Journals). Because success is apparently measured by how many times I can mention Nirvana in this blog (which is every entry).
A strong cult following and media attention accompanying a topless appearance on the cover of NME helped to propel Polly and the gang to major label Island Records. The last album the band recorded together was 1992’s Rid of Me. Tensions mounted while on tour in America and Polly finally went solo in 1993.
That happened to be the right career move, considering that Polly Jean’s first solo album To Bring You My Love melted the panties off every music critic you could think of. When it was released in 1995, it ended up being voted Album of the Year by The Village Voice, Rolling Stone, USA Today, People, (deep breath), The New York Times, and The Los Angeles Times. Plus it ranked third on Spin’s “Top 90 Albums of the ‘90s.” Is that enough to convince you of its awesomeness?
Where Is She Now?
Continuing to make music that sounds nothing like anything she’s ever done.
Polly greeted the new millennium with radical experimentation in her sound. For her 2000 album Stories from the City, Stories from the Sea, she had the audacity to mix melodic pop rock with the gritty punk energy of Dry and Rid of Me. And just to add some intrigue to the project, she recruited Thom Yorke to sing on three tracks.
Four years passed until the release of Uh Huh Her, which actually charted higher than Stories from the City, but failed to garner the same kind of praise. Polly played every instrument featured on the album and even produced it herself.
By 2007, it was evident that Polly hated repeating herself. White Chalk marked a startling departure from anything she had previously released. The album consisted mainly of piano ballads.
In 2010, Polly performed a new song titled “Let England Shake” on BBC’s The Andrew Marr Show. Strangely enough, she decided to use an autoharp for her performance. This served as an appropriate preview for what was to come.
But Why PJ Harvey?
Her eighth studio album Let England Shake was released back in February and she’s currently blowing everyone’s minds with her live performances. Spin recently gushed about her “harrowing” set at Coachella over the weekend. Yours truly has yet to experience Polly Jean in a live setting. Sad face.
What Does Sam Think?
I just started listening to PJ Harvey last year. I have no idea why I waited that long. Shame on me. I have a thing for strong female artists (see my obsession with Fiona Apple) and Polly Jean is no exception.
Her voice is raw and desperate, but she still manages to put that feminine touch in everything. Most people compare her to Patti Smith, but I don’t think it’s possible to compare her to anyone. She does her own thing and she stands out in her own way. In direct contrast to artists like Lady Gaga or Britney Spears, she doesn’t overtly assert her sex appeal. And while we all like to see a little T&A now and then, sometimes it’s best to just focus on the music and leave the rest to the imagination.
Musically, Polly is so insanely diverse. Her first two albums have this guitar-driven punk energy that just drips with quintessential ‘90s girl angst. But she’s not a riot girl. On Dry and Rid of Me, she seethes with subdued intensity. She grumbles to herself instead of spitting in your face like Bikini Kill.
Surprisingly (or maybe not if you’ve accurately gauged my taste in music), I’m not a huge fan of her recent stuff. It’s just a little too out there for me. Don’t get me wrong; I love experimentation (I’m a loyal Radiohead fan, if that tells you anything). But Let England Shake hasn’t struck a chord with me yet. It’s just so radically different that I don’t know what to do with it. But I still admire Polly’s creativity and dedication to her craft. There aren’t enough genuine female artists in the world. While not everyone can be PJ Harvey, women can still follow her example and just take some chances. We have enough half-naked pop stars floating around. Give me more girls with guitars and unresolved angst.
--Sam Boyer, reporting from the ‘90s.