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The work of PJ Harvey
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Dry (1992)

If you were releasing a single called ‘Sheela-na-gig’, the obvious thing to do would be to put a picture of a Sheela-na-gig on the cover. PJ Harvey didn’t do the obvious thing: she and photographer friend Maria Mochnacz chose an even more challenging image, a distorted woman’s face wearing radioactive-looking lipstick. If you were releasing an album called Dry, the obvious thing to do would be to put the eponymous track on it; Harvey didn’t do that either, allowing the title to stand for more than the definitely sexual lyric of that song, a less specific sense of need and inadequacy. The ambivalent tone of her whole career is set right at the beginning.

Dry wasn’t a feminist essay, Harvey insisted, and it’s not, in any uncomplicated way; listen to the cross-cutting, self-critical voices on ‘Sheela-na-gig’. Instead, the album dismantles the relations and expectations of men and women without offering us a solution. Of course these aren’t the singer’s experiences, but they are her emotions, used as conduits to channel, it sometimes seems, the whole sexual history of humankind. ‘Happy and Bleeding’ – the album’s subtlest track – and ‘Fountain’ begin in the Garden of Eden and translate that imagery into a universal account of womanhood, ‘sewing ever since time began’ to cover up her nakedness; she’s naked again in ‘Water’. Little could be more vulnerable than the opener ‘Oh My Lover’, a desperate, relentlessly sad lyric of a woman accepting her partner’s infidelity if only she can keep a bit of him; or ‘Sheela-na-gig’, as it veers between yearning for and contempt of male approval. The album cover was a close-up of Harvey’s mouth and chin, marked with a pink smear which could be either lipstick, or a bruise.

In the same vein, Harvey was keen to stress the humour in her work. Dry certainly has comic exaggeration and melodrama in places, and ‘Hair’ is nothing less than a knockabout reimagining of the story of Samson and Delilah (in which she is rather enamoured of his raven locks), but such comedy as is present is continually undercut by an everpresent fury and bleakness. By the end of ‘Dress’ the narrator is sprawled on the floor of the dance hall where she hoped to impress her man, ‘a fallen woman in dancing costume’: the singer might have smiled at that image, but who else would dare? ‘Plants and Rags’ is the uneasiest and, thanks to Rob Ellis’s shrieking cello, the most aurally violent track on the album; although Harvey maintained the appalling line ‘ease myself into a body bag’ was only there because it rhymed, it’s a glimpse of underlying horror, like a broken bone poking through the skin. What her distancing perhaps shows us is a rather gentle person as shocked by the brutality of her own imagination as the rest of us are.

Musically, Dry’s predominant note is bluesy, at its most straightforward in ‘O Stella’, ‘Victory’, ‘Hair’ and ‘Water’: but most of the time it’s blues-plus, powered into post-punk by the punishing energy of the band. ‘Sheela-na-gig’ ends in a frantic percussive breakdown, while the reeling, dizzying rhythm and scratchy strings of ‘Dress’ leave the listener as disorientated as its protagonist. Dry grows curiously warmer the more you listen to it, but the first and last impression it leaves is of rage, no matter how blunted or decorated with technique: a series of unhealed wounds.

She’s 22.


[There are – currently – two pieces of what you might call Polly’s ‘juvenilia’ which have seen the light of day, and which both appeared as b-sides to singles released in 2007. They were probably recorded during the time she performed with John Parish’s band Automatic Dlamini and may have been written even before 1988, when she was 18/19. ‘Heaven’ is the slighter of the two, rehearsing again her interest in the myth of Eden; ‘Wait’ is a charming song of youthful yearning and hope, playing with its blues idiom in a way which foreshadows her first two albums. Her voice is na´ve and undeveloped compared to a mere three years later, if indeed it was three years, but there’s a strength there already.]