P.J. Harvey: Still angry after all these years
I once offered the singer-songwriter Polly Jean Harvey my hand in marriage. It happened in 2011 and was, unfortunately for me, far from a romantic moment. She was on stage at the Royal Albert Hall in London, while I was part of the audience, sharing a box with four Englishwomen. We were all suitably tipsy, which was the only reason I had the courage to shout out, “Marry me, Polly Jean,” much to the horror of the women next to me. Miss Harvey didn’t condescend to respond, of course.
It was not her first tour. P.J. Harvey was performing songs from her award-winning eighth studio album, Let England Shake, that night. It won her the prestigious Mercury Prize for the second time and topped many lists of the year’s best albums across the Western world. It wasn’t a catchy album and its success had everything to do with its content, which examined the nature of war and conflict. Some of them cited the Battle of Gallipoli, while others criticized failed attempts at diplomacy. It was radically different from anything any musician was writing about.
I came to P.J. Harvey’s music early though, as a teenager, sitting up in awe while listening to her debut album, Dry, in 1992. The first single was a track called Dress, in which she sweetly sang, “Music play, make it good for romancing/Must be a way I can dress to please him,” before erupting in anger in the chorus. The album also featured a song called Sheela-Na-Gig, about carvings of naked women displaying their vulva found across Britain and Ireland, and whose reason for existence archaeologists have yet to fully agree upon. Harvey gives them a voice, singing “Look at these, my child-bearing hips, look at these, my ruby-red ruby lips...”, then calls them exhibitionists before tearing into a second verse with, “Gonna wash that man right out of my hair.” It is cathartic music that continues to rouse audiences 25 years after its release.
Dry was followed a year later by Rid Of Me, which cemented her status as a feminist singer songwriter, even as she steadfastly refused to subscribe to any feminist agenda. It was an angry album, made with musicians Rob Ellis and Steve Vaughn, before she went solo with what critics described as a more religious album, To Bring You My Love, which found a place on Rolling Stone magazine’s list of “Greatest Albums Of All Time”. One of its highlights was the track Down By The Water, about filicide—a parent’s killing of a child. It’s why I, like millions of others, was compelled to follow her trajectory as an artist. One simply didn’t know what to expect.
This was followed by Is This Desire? In 2001, Lori Burns, associate professor of music theory at the University of Ottawa, and Mélisse Lafrance, a doctoral candidate in French Studies at Oxford University, published a book, Disruptive Divas: Feminism, Identity & Popular Music, which took a closer look at this album. They referred to its contents as “not only musical works denoting states of want and loss, but also narratives with widespread cultural implications that seek to unravel contemporary gender constructs and the forms of desire produced by such constructs.”
In 2000, Harvey began to change the way she wrote. She became more melodic on Stories From The City, Stories From The Sea, and experimented with piano-driven ballads on White Chalk, before becoming blatantly political on Let England Shake. There is still nothing quite like the latter. Produced by her long-time collaborators Flood, Mick Harvey and John Parish, it reveals a writer at the peak of her form. The lyrics are almost shockingly sparse, opening with the title track (“The West’s asleep, let England shake, weighted down with silent dead...”), before slowly conjuring up her country’s brutal, bloody past (“Take me back to beautiful England, and the grey, damp filthiness of ages”).
In 2015, Harvey collaborated with photographer Seamus Murphy to publish The Hollow Of The Hand, a collection of poems and photographs inspired by the duo’s travels across Kosovo, Afghanistan and Washington, DC. A few months later, on her album The Hope Six Demolition Project, she turned to public housing in the US and its effect on crime rates. This April, she released the single I’ll Be Waiting, documenting how victims of war are consumed by hate and then compelled to seek revenge.
Now 47, the Dorset native continues to inspire, provoke and attract new fans with every new work. I imagine P.J. Harvey travelling incognito even as I type this, shining a light into places musicians tend to avoid as they pursue chart success. I can’t wait to see what she does next, because I know she has very good taste. Why else would she reject my proposal?