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The work of PJ Harvey
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Uh Huh Her (2004)

Bearing in mind that PJ Harvey may be only halfway through a fifty-year career, at the moment it seems divided into two phases, an earlier one of self-exploration, and then the submerging of the self in the service of something else. On the cusp between them, and just before her great mid-2000s gear-shift, sits Uh Huh Her. The colossal success of Stories could have become a prison: she escapes by deliberately turning away from gloss and polish to produce something which is grimier and less ambitious: the very name of the album is a series of grunts, self-deprecatingly dismissive. She played everything on it herself, apart from the percussive elements she couldn’t play, which were delegated to Rob Ellis.

Here, Harvey knows she’s on the brink of change. She decorated the record sleeve with a series of self-portraits, recording the masks and identities she’d been wearing over the previous decade and more, and underneath the restatement of her basic ideas and concerns is the sense that she’s trying to answer the question ‘Who have I become?’ Seen this way, the apparently irrelevant inclusion of a minute of crying seagulls becomes a way of emphasising the centrality of Dorset to her imagination.

So we have deliberate self-assertion on Uh Huh Her, most clearly in the raucous ‘Who the Fuck?’ in which the singer scorns attempts to straighten her hair, and the creepy pseudo folk-song ‘Pocket Knife’, where a young woman contemplates a bloody alternative to marriage. Throughout the whole collection runs a nihilistic thread, a denial of the control of others, of choices that were made in the past; the tiny, simple ‘No Child of Mine’ encapsulates this. Harvey also offers a re-examination of longstanding themes: ‘The Letter’ uses the wonderful conceit of letter-writing and –reading to think about desire and frustration, which is also the topic of ‘The Slow Drug’; ‘The Darker Days of Me and Him’ and ‘Shame’ deal with male-female relationships, all familiar enough. It seems a somewhat bitty collection at first, until you realise there is a subtle and carefully assembled tidal rhythm between louder and softer, longer and shorter pieces. 

But the album is far from a rehash of Harvey’s older work – that’s a false impression created by the distorted vocals, low-tuned guitars, and rough production of the louder songs. In fact most of the album is rather quiet, and there are many subtleties such the blush of bell-like synth on ‘The Life and Death of Mr Badmouth’. Five tracks have harmonising backing vocals. Most strikingly, much of the time Harvey adopts a high, sometimes even childlike voice (‘Pocket Knife’ and ‘Cat on the Wall’) anticipating where she would go next. ‘Shame is the shadow of love’, she sings on ‘Shame’, an admission shocking in its vulnerability. In this candid company, the moments of Harveyesque horror on ‘It’s You’ (‘without you I just dream of my hair falling out’) are delicious but nudge towards self-pastiche.

Truthfully, the quietest tracks are the most powerful. ‘You Come Through’ is a delicate hymn to friendship woven from xylophone, piano, violin and drum (or electronic sounds imitating them), while the spare voice-and-guitar piece ‘The Desperate Kingdom of Love’, graced with some of Harvey’s most vivid, tender lyrics, is heartbreakingly lovely. The closer, ‘The Darker Days of Me and Him’, a complex texture of synth, guitar and drum, has the narrator renouncing romance, or at least men, and wearily pledging to ‘tape these broken parts together and limp this love around’.

The final impression is of intense intimacy, more revealing, in its way, than anything before it. By the time we reach the inconclusive end of ‘Darker Days’, the past has been tidied up, and put away. Rock-chick Polly has gone into the dressing-up box, never to return, and someone startlingly different is about to take her place.

She’s 34.

 

Non-album tracks, 2003-2006

The b-sides to Uh Huh Her form a strong sequence – but an unusual one. This is because there are two tracks which confirm that the album was something of a clearing-out exercise. ‘Angel’ is probably one of Harvey’s earliest songs, and certainly both her voice and the guitar work hint at an origin in the Dry era, but the recording seems to have had a tambourine track added; the macabre ‘Dance’ appears to date from the early 1990s as well. The rest are probably contemporary with the album. ’97 Degrees’ certainly is, a snapshot of sultry desire with the same buzzing guitar and narrow vocal; ‘Stone’’s negative picture of a relationship is wrapped in swirling acoustic guitar work; while ‘The Phone Song’’s obscure lyrics are barely audible through the distort. The last two are fine work. ‘Bows and Arrows’ is another desperate, raging demand for hope in a poisoned earth in which ‘violence sings’: ‘Won’t you send those angels to watch over me?’ Never has metaphysical angst sounded so urgent. Finally, on ‘The Falling’, Harvey’s snarlingly aggressive but ultimately optimistic declaration to ‘all the men I have loved’ of the ability of love to overcome rage and sorrow is lifted by soaring harmonies and keyboard notes: ‘there’s still time to save/ the falling hearts of our children’. It’s a beautiful, mighty anthem of open-hearted hope, hope without illusions.

Two tracks didn’t even make the b-sides, Harvey apparently deciding they were too close to stuff she’d already done, meaning they did the rounds of live performances and nothing more. ‘Evol’ hurls accusations against love for the damage it does, while the frantic ‘Uh Huh Her’ itself voices the savage outpouring of a spurned lover whose rage affects the whole landscape around her: ‘I fill the sea all with my tears/I drown the fields.’

And then, oh, and then, there is one final piece before the silence falls on this stage of Harvey’s development, a piece which rightly belongs in the next stage, when that next stage was already being prepared. It was, she told the Hay-on-Wye Literary Festival in 2006, the first song she ever composed on the piano, ‘another happy little number’, spun from a lyric in a book of Russian folk songs which she would also utilise five years later for Let England Shake. This tiny, modest, lilting ballad speaks so unbearably eloquently of the sharing of human sorrow that I suspect its sheer perfection is why she also swore never to record it or, after three outings in 2006, to perform it again. Its name is ‘Bitter Little Bird’, and, delicate though it is, it has the power to break the heart of the entire world. Or so it seems to me.