My introduction to the music of Polly Jean Harvey was through ‘The Dancer,’ the final track of her 1995 album To Bring you My Love. It was a desperate song– I almost felt shameful listening to it, as if I was imposing, listening in on something I shouldn’t be. It was her raw vulnerability, that sense that I was eavesdropping on the middle of a crisis that fused my ears to the rest of her discography.
Choosing at random, I opted for her 2007 album White Chalk. Rather than the split-open lava of her 1995 release, White Chalk was a slow burner. On tracks like ‘Grow Grow Grow’ and ‘When Under Ether’ Harvey whispers her secrets to us, enveloping darkness into lullabies and woozy piano-based ballads. The songs speak to trauma and loss, in a voice that grows softer and more reserved as each track progresses. There couldn’t be a greater difference between the PJ Harvey of White Chalk and the Harvey of To Bring You My Love.
This is the key to Harvey’s music – she always plays characters, macabre ones, shy ones, brash ones. She burst onto the scene as the emboldened, crude Polly Jean, roaring at us in ‘Rid of Me; “I’ll make you lick my injuries / I’m gonna twist your head off, see.” On the album of the same name, PJ operates from a place of instinct; growling, shrieking. The entire album is an outburst, the result of holding back nothing.
No one could predict what forms this voice would take over the next few decades, packaged in synth-laden tracks, 4-track punk-inflected pieces, political songs written on the auto-harp. With PJ, you must always expect the unexpected. There is no ground she will not cover.
Written by DJ Phenomenology at KSDT.