"...it was the first time I was listening to a woman sing about being imperfect as well as many of the uncomfortable experiences women face. This was a huge change from the more polished pop I was used to."
A true innovator of alternative rock, the career and artistry of Dorset-born artist Polly Jean Harvey, better known as PJ Harvey, has long fascinated the music world, her catalogue characterised by an impressive ability to navigate genres with a beguiling fluidity.
A strong collaborator, the first incarnation of the eponymous PJ Harvey project consisted of herself, drummer Rob Ellis and bassist Ian Oliver (who she met when performing in John Parish's rock ensemble Automatic Dlamini). Moving forwards to further establish her own solo sounds, Harvey has only ever evolved to become more eclectic, experimental, politically and personally inclined. She has achieved serious success recording alongside Nick Cave, producer Mick Harvey, Mark 'Flood' Ellis and longtime musical partner John Parish and her impressive body of work includes Mercury award-winning albums and various Brit and Grammy accolades. With a fearless approach to experimentation, the magnetic pull of PJ Harvey's music continues to inspire and influence today's generation of musicians and music lovers alike.
With PJ Harvey's tenth album on the horizon, Rough Trade East's Amelie Grice (a musician herself in Skin and Blister) examines her long-lasting fascination with Harvey's idiosyncratic discography and the impact she has made as one of Britain's most inspiring female artists.
PJ Harvey is an artist I find myself constantly coming back to. I may not have been born until her 6th release, but I have steadily made my way through her catalogue in my late teen years. Many factors have fuelled my obsession, the main one being that she was the first solo female rock artist that I had listened to. I was also immediately drawn to her ability to use her gender in a way I had not experienced before. I love and relate to PJ's lyrics even though she has some dark, twisted songs (White Chalk I am looking at you). Ranking her 9 studio albums has been difficult to say the least - ask me next week and I will have a completely different order. PJ Harvey's albums have so much diversity in them, they could all be by totally different artists, and that’s why I will always be a PJ mega fan. There will always be something new to find in her discography.
10. The Hope Six Demolition Project (2016)
The Hope Six Demolition Project is a strong stomping album, full of anthems of power and optimism, such as the first track The Community of Hope. Where Let England Shake was her love letter to England, this is now her letter to America. You can tell how much she has progressed since White Chalk and Let England Shake; two albums where she experiments more and more with her vocal range, this is used again in the winding track River Anacostia. I must admit that this record I have had to listen to a lot more times than her others to try and get into it. I am not too sure what it is as normally I have complete faith that PJ will always make music I like. I think that The Hope Six Demolition Project is just a lot neater and standoffish compared to the messier, more mysterious sound on her previous work. It does not have the same kind of intricate and grimy vibe that I associate with PJ Harvey's music and so for the moment it holds an ‘it's me, not you’ type of listening situation, personally.
Favourite songs: River Anacostia
9. Uh Huh Her (2004)
Uh Huh Her brings back the fun, messy PJ Harvey that some people thought was missing from Stories From the City, Stories From the Sea. It’s a lot freer and looser than her previous, more polished album, stating to Mojo that she wanted to return to the ‘more dirty side of things’. The track The Letter is a perfect example of it, with a lighter-sounding band (apart from drums recorded by PJ) and a more upbeat and rockier chorus. You can even tell from the cover art that she has stripped everything back, slowed down and returned to her more playful side. My favourite thing about Uh Huh Her is the interludes, such as The End, a slow accordion track. It separates it from any sort of normal rock album, Uh Huh Her definitely has more layers.
Favourite songs: The Life and Death of Mr. Badmouth
8. To Bring You My Love (1995)
To Bring You My Love was PJ Harvey’s first solo project, after the split of the original trio. However, it is far from feeling empty or a let-down compared to the successful start to her career. To Bring You My Love starts with the title track, a slow stomping grungy number, completely reassuring that Harvey had no trouble making an album on her own. The overall theme is one of tension and longing, shown by the slower tempo of many of the songs. Down By the Water is another great track on the album, it is one of the only times Harvey uses more electronic instruments; there's a synth playing along with ‘big fish big fish swimming in the water come back here and give me my daughter’. It sounds quite creepy but very cool. It is the album I’m least familiar with due to the very random order I’ve been listening to her discography, but I will definitely be coming back to it.
Favourite songs: Down By the Water
7. White Chalk (2007)
White Chalk is the dark emo sibling out of her discography. Instead of her usual driving guitar lines, she plays sombre slow piano lines. The whole album sounds delicate and vulnerable, a complete change in direction from the previous release Uh Huh Her. Some of the piano melodies sound slightly Radiohead-like but with a lot more emotional weight to them. This is my go-to cry album, very much a ‘look out of the bus window in the rain’ kind of soundtrack. I love PJ Harvey due to her range of styles and this is one extreme of that spectrum, the quiet gothic side. The lyrics are dark, to say the least. Grow Grow Grow depicts her going through an abortion and When Under Ether is about a woman throwing herself off a mountain. It goes without saying that this album is not a happy one, but it is a moving and essential one.
Favourite songs: White Chalk and Grow Grow Grow
6. Rid of Me (1993)
This is PJ Harvey’s revenge album. Imagine a Taylor Swift breakup track but less sparkly and more sinister. She continues the fast, grungy sound, but channels more hurt and anger compared to feisty debut Dry. 50ft Queenie is such a fun track and I always laugh as I imagine a giant PJ Harvey looking down and observing people who might doubt or scrutinise her talent due to her gender. This record continues a lot of the feminist themes of Dry with other songs about gender. On Man-Size she sings ‘Silence my lady head, Get girl out of my head’ and it speaks to me as a satirical take on ‘how to survive being a woman in the music industry’. There is also a sextet version of this track on the record which sounds like something out of a thriller and gives the lyrics much more of a spooky vibe.
Favourite songs: 50ft Queenie
5. I Inside the Old Year Dying (2023)
I Inside the Old Year Dying has been the first time I have been waiting for and anticipating a new PJ Harvey album which has given me a whole new experience of her music. It’s not an album I have stumbled on like the others, which does create higher stakes. IITOYID has a more mature sound and a larger soundscape, it’s slow when it needs to be and builds very cleverly. There are many times when it feels that other albums or sounds are being referenced, there are the minimalist and anthem-like sounds from The Hope Six Demolition Project, higher falsetto singing from White Chalk and more loose jangly songs like Autumn Term that sound like they could be a part of Uh Huh Her. Overall, Harvey has created such a tender album, sometimes feels almost like a folk album from Big Thief or Nick Drake at times, with their more intricate and delicate guitar picking. It does have a mystical and mythological that has been expanded from her poetry book Orlam. I feel that it has definitely not disappointed and will become another classic like the rest of her discography.
Favourite songs: Autumn Term and I Inside the Old Year Dying
4. Let England Shake (2011)
This album really took me aback when I first listened to it - completely not what I had heard from PJ Harvey before. Let England Shake is a haunting, folky love letter dedicated to England and a big contrast to her previously more grungy sound. It would make a very cool Halloween party playlist. The first track starts with a spooky piano melody accompanied by soft vocals from Harvey, indicating that her 2011 release is continuing with the more mellow tone she set on the 2007 album White Chalk. The almost sinister theme is continued on tracks such as The Words That Maketh Murder, All & Everyone and On Battleship Hill, all songs about war, showing Harvey's more dark and powerful side. Let England Shake will always be a favourite of mine just because of how different it is from her other releases; it makes it impossible for me to ever be bored of PJ Harvey. It is no surprise that in 2011 the album won her a second Mercury Prize, the only artist to have won it twice.
Favourite songs: The Glorious Land, On Battleship Hill
3. Dry (1991)
Dry is how I was introduced to PJ Harvey, more specifically the song Dress, a fast-paced track about failing to seduce a man. I remember hearing it when I was younger and being intrigued by the fact that it was the first time I was listening to a woman sing about being imperfect as well as many of the uncomfortable experiences women face. This was a huge change from the more polished pop I was used to. Her 1991 debut pushed the then trio PJ Harvey into the spotlight, even being referenced by Kurt Cobain as his 16th favourite album ever. It is one of Harvey’s more grungy albums, with fast rhythms and repeated bass guitar riffs. Sheela-Na-Gig, the second single, comparable to the Riot Grrrl era with its feisty lyrics quoting “Gonna wash that man right out of my hair,” perfectly establishes that Polly Jean is not to be messed with. I remain a bit scared of her, I shall fangirl from afar.
Favourite songs: Dress
Stories From the City, Stories From the Sea is one of PJ Harvey’s most acclaimed albums, winning her the Mercury Prize (the first women to do so) in 2001, as she watched The Pentagon burn from a Washington hotel. With a more polished sound and directness to her lyrics, the music here is matured from her fast and grungy sound. This does not mean that her 2000 release does not have its soft side. On tracks such as This Mess We’re In (featuring Thom Yorke) and We Float, Harvey slows down the tempo for a more nostalgic and melancholy sound. Despite the Mercury win this album was ripped apart by Pitchfork in an original review, claiming that ‘her conviction is less powerful than it used to be’. Perhaps in certain places it does not have the same punch or vulnerability as she had previously shown, but I will always sing its praises for it’s the record that has This Is Love, A Place Called Home and Good Fortune, some of PJ’s best songs ever. It's also a Rough Trade Essential for a reason. I am determined to one day go to New York solely to recreate the cover art.
See also that time we shot Good Fortune: The Brick Lane Edition.
Favourite songs: A Place Called Home
1. Is This Desire? (1998)
If I was introducing someone to PJ Harvey, I would send them straight to Is This Desire? The main reason for this is the range of styles on the album; the quiet ASMR side on The Wind, and more intense distorted industrial songs such as Joy. It spans both the harsh and soft sides of Harvey’s music making it one of my personal favourites. Coincidently, Polly Jean has reflected that this is the release she is very proud of, explaining that it was also very draining to make due to all the new techniques and experimentations. I would argue that it pays off, it really does sound like she is putting herself out there musically and testing her limits, especially on Electric Light and The River. That's why it's my favourite, it's far from playing it safe. I lived a month straight where I basically listened to this album solely. To me, it is just perfect.
Favourite songs: The Wind
PJ Harvey - I Inside the Old Year Dying (Partisan Records)