Revisiting my extensive music collection, one artist at a time
The first few times I listened to PJ Harvey’s Uh Huh Her (2004) this past week, I didn’t get much out of it. I liked some of the songs, but the overall sound was a little too raw for my tastes, like listening to the sound of an open wound. Then I noticed that she wrote, produced and performed everything on the album, with the exception of drums (by longtime collaborator Rob Ellis), and I was able to appreciate the immediacy and intensity of the performances. Only about half of the 14 songs made a big impact on me, and those are the ones I want to focus on here. Album opener “The Life And Death Of Mr. Badmouth” sets the tone for the bulk of the album, as Harvey plays the angry, wronged lover (“Your bad mouth has killed off everything we had”). It’s chugging and crunchy, with grungy guitars and a big stomping beat, although it’s also slow & lumbering (but in a good way), and features a great hook at “Wash it out, wash it out, wash it out.” “The Letter” has a cool, slightly funky groove with an excellent staggered guitar riff. It’s probably the most radio-friendly song on the album, but since it sounds a bit like the band Hole it’s more of a ‘90s throwback. “Cat On The Wall” has a dense, dark intro followed by fuzzy guitars, and I love the ascending melody in nearly every line of the verses (“I heard our song on the radio”; “It wasn’t long before I think of you”). “Turn up the radio” is another memorable hook. “You Come Through” is the highlight of the album for me. I love the African style percussion, and the quiet, muted production is a breath of fresh air amidst the raw sounds on the bulk of the record. The chorus is a killer: “You come through for me, you come true for me.”
[PJ Harvey – “You Come Through”]
“It’s You” is slow & sparse with a lovely piano melody that’s slightly buried in the mix below the fuzzy bass. I latched onto the “All I want to do, and all I want to grow up to be” section almost immediately. The album closes with “The Darker Days Of Me & Him,” a powerful tune with hushed vocals, sparse guitar & percussion. There’s a great lilting melody in the verses, and the song slowly builds in volume and intensity as she recalls a bad relationship (“I’ll pick up the pieces, I’ll carry on somehow”). I love her high falsetto during the repeated “Limp this love around” refrain. Although the songs discussed so far are the ones I enjoyed the most, there are a couple of others that are worth noting. “Shame” is a fast moving tune featuring accordion and bitter lyrics that are still very catchy (“shame is the shadow of love”). She’s angry & defiant on “Who The F**k?,” which has a cool modern rock guitar pattern and distorted vocals, spewing lines like, “I’m not like the other girls, you can’t straighten my curls.” “Pocket Knife” is sparse blues with a tambourine driving the beat. There’s a great vocal melody in the last two lines of each verse (i.e. “How the world slips by so fast; how does anybody last?”). The rest of the album didn’t break any new ground, but that’s hardly a complaint. While Uh Huh Her isn’t in my top 3 or 4 PJ Harvey albums, it includes a lot of great songs that I would consider essential to her catalog.
The Peel Sessions 1991–2004 (2006) collects 12 performances from five sessions Harvey did for legendary British DJ John Peel. The first six songs feature the original trio, with four songs from Dry sounding similar to their album counterparts, as well as two others I hadn’t heard before. The first is “Naked Cousin,” a song originally included on a soundtrack album. It’s brash & loud with a great rhythm track, and could’ve easily fit on Rid Of Me. The other “new” song is a version of blues great Willie Dixon’s “Wang Dang Doodle.” It’s not a traditional blues performance, but the rawness of the band’s interpretation is equal to the best of that genre. The next three songs feature just Harvey and John Parish, including an excellent version of my favorite song from Dance Hall At Louse Point, “That Was My Veil.” The other two are solid but not terribly noteworthy, although “Losing Ground” is new to me because it only previously appeared on a single b-side. Of the two songs recorded during the Stories From The City, Stories From The Sea era, “This Wicked Tongue” is another new-to-me track that was a bonus on some overseas versions of the CD. I like the steady beat with a drone-like feel. “Beautiful Feeling” originally featured Radiohead’s Thom Yorke, and although this version has a nice subtle arrangement, his vocals are missed here. This collection closes with my favorite song from Uh Huh Her, “You Come Through.” It was recorded at a tribute concert for Peel, who had passed away a couple of months before this performance. Lyrically, it was a perfect choice for this occasion, and she delivers some passionate vocals along with sensitive guitar work from Josh Klinghoffer. This may not be an essential album to casual PJ Harvey fans, and even more seasoned fans (like I’ve become these past few weeks) may not need it in their collections, but the inclusion of four non-album tracks and all-around solid musicianship make it a worthwhile addition, even if I may not play it as frequently as her studio albums.
Her next studio album, White Chalk (2007), seemed like a huge change of pace at the time, as most of the songs highlight piano and various keyboards (instead of guitars) along with high-pitched gothic (but not “goth”) vocals. Now that I know her previous work a lot better, I don’t consider this such a drastic departure. The songs may be dressed up differently, but the musical & lyrical intensity we’ve come to expect from her are still there in abundance. “The Devil” is peppy and creepy in equal measure, with a chilling melody floating above a steady beat. The lyrics are haunting, about a woman mourning her departed lover (“I go out…insanely expecting you to come there”; “All of my being is now in pining”). “Grow Grow Grow” is a circular tune with an eerie piano melody. Harvey delivers an excellent echo-y falsetto, and I love the fantastic piano runs during the simple 3-word chorus. “When Under Ether” was a strange choice for a single release, and it’s no surprise that it wasn’t a big commercial success even though it’s a great song. Perhaps the lyrics, seemingly about abortion, scared people off (“Something’s inside me, unborn and unblessed, disappears in the ether, this world to the next”). Musically it’s not far removed from Tori Amos’ strongest work, with a muted pulsating groove and a lovely piano melody. “To Talk To You” is immediately captivating, with the line “Oh grandmother how I miss you” drawing me in. She’s talking at a graveside, asking for advice (“If I lay on the earth, could you hear?”), all set to a powerful vocal performance. “The Piano” is deceptively simple, with lots of subtle tempo & rhythmic shifts, and a gently driving beat during the repeated “Oh God I miss you” refrain.
Album closer “The Mountain” features some monumental falsetto vocals over a slightly playful piano melody. Lyrically, it seems to be an anti-war statement, as the mountain itself equates fallen soldiers with fallen trees. The other half of the album doesn’t reach the highs of the five songs I’ve already mentioned, but once you get into the overall mood there are still a number of notable high points. “Dear Darkness” may not be super catchy, but it’s stark & haunting with dark lyrics from someone who’s lived a life of sadness (“So now it’s your time, time to pay, with all the things you took from us”). “White Chalk” is at times slightly formless, with just breathy vocals and strummed acoustic guitar, but with minor additions throughout (percussion, banjo, harmonica) the arrangement won me over. The other songs I haven’t mentioned are carried by her one-of-a-kind vocals, and the album as a whole is defined by a singular mood. It certainly packs an emotional punch over its brief 33 minute running time.
Her most recent album to date, Let England Shake (2011), started out as a great record the first time I played it, and has only improved with each subsequent listen. It certainly lives up to its award-winning reputation, and nearly all of its 12 songs are worthy of discussion. I love the quirky feel of “Let England Shake,” especially the xylophone. It reminds me a bit of Tom Waits circa The Black Rider. There’s also a unique quality to her voice (breathy yet high-pitched, tinged with sweetness), which applies to most of the songs, as though she’s singing in character. “The Last Living Rose” has a stomping yet sparse Britpop quality, and features some stark imagery of her native land (“damp filthiness of ages”; “stinking alleys”; “music of drunken beatings”). “The Glorious Land” is a particular favorite, with a hint of mid-‘80s Peter Gabriel, especially in the percussion. There’s a lot of interesting things going on here, from the sample of a bugle call to the male harmonies at “Oh, Eng-a-land” as well as the lyrical imagery of “Our land is ploughed by tanks and feet marching.”
Another brilliant tune is “The Words That Maketh Murder,” which is sung from the perspective of a battle-hardened soldier: “I have seen and done things I want to forget.” The male vocals add a great counterpoint, and I love the reference to Eddie Cochran’s “Summertime Blues” at “What if I take my problem to the United Nations?” “All And Everyone” is a harrowing depiction of wartime (“Death was all and everyone”). It’s certainly not easy listening, but I doubt that was her intention. “On Battleship Hill,” which I believe recalls a World War I battle, shifts between an upbeat, almost folky instrumental section with strummed guitars & light, jazzy drumming and the vocal section with her high, crystal clear falsetto on a bed of acoustic strumming. “England,” which begins with dissonant, Middle Eastern-influenced vocalization, would not be the first choice for England’s board of tourism (“England, you leave a taste, a bitter one…”). She’s still tied to her native country, since even though it “leaves sadness,” it’s “all to which I cling.” “In The Dark Places” might be the most commercial sounding track on the album, with a late-‘70s CBGB’s new wave vibe and a melody that recalls Patti Smith’s “Dancing Barefoot.”
I love the change in her vocal approach every few lines in “Bitter Branches,” as well as the hook at “Wave goodbye” repeated numerous times at the end. “Hanging In The Wire” features a tight harmony with Mick Harvey. It’s yet another tale of war in the guise of a tender near-ballad, about a man crossing a field after a battle where there are “unburied ghosts hanging in the wire.” “Written On The Forehead” is a moody U2/Peter Gabriel-type song that builds slowly and includes some interesting, possibly sampled background vocals. It’s a slow grower with an interesting arrangement, and has great melodies at “Date palms, orange and tangerine trees and eyes are crying for everything” and “burn, burn, let it burn.” Album closer “The Colour Of The Earth” is mostly sung by a man (Mick Harvey, I believe), with PJ Harvey delivering a harmony lead vocal. It reminds me a lot of the English band Elbow. The wartime lyrical theme surfaces again, with a story about a fellow soldier lost in battle and remembered 20 years later (“He’s still up on that hill…nothing more than a pile of bones but I think of him still”). If this isn’t the best album of her career so far, it’s certainly in her top 3. The political overtones and war-scarred imagery may not be for everyone, but it’s as memorable a collection of songs as she’s ever put together. I look forward to hearing what she comes up with next.
That completes a very enjoyable trip through PJ Harvey’s back catalog. I went into this with a cursory knowledge of her music, and after spending much of the last month revisiting this diverse yet cohesive discography, I have an even deeper appreciation of her talents. I may not always be in the mood to listen to her, but in the future when I pull any of her CDs off the shelf, I’ll have a much better knowledge of the songs as well as the environment in which they were created. Whether you’re already a Harvey fan or new to her music, I hope you’ve enjoyed this series. Please share your thoughts on any/all of these albums in the Comments section below, and pass along these posts to anyone you know who might be interested. Thanks, and stay tuned soon for my next artist.