The work of PJ Harvey
Go to homepageRid Of Me (1993)Dry (1992)White Chalk (2007)To Bring You My Love (1995)A Woman a Man Walked By (2009)Dance Hall at Louse Point (1996)Let England Shake (2011)Is This Desire? (1998)The Hope Six Demolition Project (2016)Stories from the City, Stories from the Sea (2001)PJ Harvey -  All About Eve soundtrackUh Huh Her (2004)
Rid Of Me (1993)

In 1964, composer Arvo Part wrote Collage on the theme B-A-C-H; it was his act of liberation by means of assault on the greatest figure of western music (the note ‘H’ only makes sense in the 12-tone serialist scale). For her second album, PJ Harvey recorded Bob Dylan’s ‘Highway 61 Revisited’, not so much a cover version as a detonation; it was her parallel act of liberation from her heritage. Rid Of Me takes the blues-inflected idiom of its predecessor and pushes it to destruction. It’s no surprise that the bluesy ‘Dry’ already sounds older than the rest of the material here, as indeed it was. In fact in every respect Harvey raises the stakes from the earlier record: if there were any hesitancies on Dry, Rid Of Me casts them aside. Her decision to recruit the forbidding Steve Albini as producer helps to create a recording which offers no compromise and gives both performers and listeners no place to hide: the arid, brittle acoustic exaggerates quiet and loud passages, captures every scrape and rasp of the guitars, and on ‘Rub ‘Till it Bleeds’ you can even overhear the singer coughing.

Where Dry’s keynote was rage, Rid Of Me tends to escalate it to insanity. Gone are the universal accounts of male-female relations, replaced by fantasies of maiming and mutilation. Several pieces including the title track lead into their terrible scenarios with long, menacing guitar introductions. On ‘Yuri-G’ even a celestial body gets woven into violent obsession, the meditative technique of ‘drawing down the Moon’ reimagined: ‘I drove her down on me’, Harvey snarls. ‘I might as well be dead, but I could kill you instead’, she concludes on ‘Legs’. The very strange time signatures add to the sense of extremity: on the yearning ‘Missed’ the percussion and guitars seem to be competing with rather than complementing each other, while ‘Legs’ ends in a chaos of strings. Single drum beats stab through ‘Rub ‘Till It Bleeds’ and nail its picture of the cynical violation of tenderness and trust. The first six tracks of the album amount to what must be one of the most sustainedly violent musical sequences ever recorded. The second half is less evenly extreme but still gives us another Eden-inspired song, ‘Snake’, in which Eve vents her fury at the deceiving and very definitely male serpent, and ‘Ecstasy’, which paradoxically frames its euphoric theme in dark, threatening music, and whose narrator finishes pleading ‘I’m begging you, look at me’.

There is still uneasy humour, even angrier and more scornful of stable sexualities than hitherto. The iconic ’50 Foot Queenie’ is a ludicrous phallic/anti-phallic pantomime which was illustrated in live performances by the singer stamping round the stage in leopard-spot dress, feather boa, huge sunglasses and gigantic gold wedges like an avenging B-movie monster. ‘Me-Jane’, like ‘Hair’ on Dry, provides another role-twisting account of a mythical couple, with a woman who rages at her Tarzan ‘You’ve got me nailing walls, I’m hanging from the ceiling!’ But listen to the two versions of ‘Man-Size’: in the second, straighter treatment, the image of the woman dressing up male is absurd; in Rob Ellis’s manic strings-driven one, his suggestion that Harvey sing the lyrics through her teeth turns it into something tense and unhinged.

Where Dry presented a sequence of wounds, Rid Of Me deliberately rips them open in furious catharsis. Harvey has realised her own abilities, shaken free of her musical background, and embraced a repertoire of shrieks, howls, gasps and whispers to get the desperate stories out of her head and into music. She knows what she can do now. It’s not an easy discovery for anyone.

She’s 23.

Non-album tracks, 1992-3

Several of these come from the compilation 4-Track Demos which comprised pieces that didn’t make it onto Rid Of Me plus rawer versions of songs that did, as well as B-Sides from singles. They tend to show Harvey playing with ideas and techniques that reached a more polished form on the albums. The multivocal ‘Easy’ sounds like a dry run for the more sophisticated ‘Sheela-na-Gig’; ‘Goodnight’ has her adopting an astonishing bass growl that has never quite resurfaced, while ‘Claudine the Inflatable One’ is pure humour – if you overlook the basically pitiful sexual situation it describes – and ‘M-Bike’, a raging diatribe apparently directed at Harvey’s first boyfriend’s motorbike, manages to be extremely funny. ‘Reeling’ is her principal exercise in Beefheart-ism, and one is relieved she got it out of her system. The lyrics to the very strange ‘Daddy’ read rather tenderly, but the thin delivery against a background of accordion, tuba, and collapsing drums makes it distinctly queasy to listen to: at the end it sounds as though everyone drops their instruments and the studio door shuts. ‘Primed and Ticking’, a scary love song, contains some of Harvey’s most wonderfully energetic lines: ‘you look at me like I shot your dog’ and ‘you gorgeous stack of pancakes, you!’, amid borrowings from ‘Praise my soul the king of heaven’ and the Book of Ruth. But the pick of them all, bridging the gap between Rid of Me and To Bring You My Love, is the dangerous, desperate ‘Hardly Wait’, a simultaneously hair-raising and ridiculous song of frustration and vampiric obsession (‘I’ll open my mouth wide, eat your heart’) which concludes with the dreadful refrain ‘In my glass coffin, I am waiting’. No wonder the critics shuddered.