If you’re thinking about exploring the oeuvre of Polly Jean Harvey, MBE, here’s a recommendation: skip Dry, Rid of Me, the universally acclaimed To Bring You My Love and get straight to the fucking point with 4-Track Demos.
PJ’s early period was steeped in grunge, a genre developed in reaction to the excessively smooth and synthesized sounds of the 1980s. During its peak years from 1991-1995, grunge dominated the rock airwaves, with Nirvana leading the way. Grunge was both a sound and an attitude, celebrating darkness over light, the ugly over the beautiful, the rough over the smooth. In the hands of its best practitioners, it captured a deep sense of dissatisfaction, not only with life in general but with the ugliness underlying the pasteurized veneer of modern civilization. Grunge was a negative expression of liberation expressed in heavy distortion, deep bass and plenty of pure noise. Kurt Cobain’s death took the steam out of the movement, but it couldn’t have lasted that much longer anyway: you can’t hold that much anger and rage forever. Most grunge artists faded into oblivion, but some (like PJ Harvey and Radiohead) managed to work their way out of the genre’s limitations while remaining open to exploring the darkness in different ways.
Operating in parallel to grunge was the emergence of third-wave feminism. Women artists began to sing about not-very-nice things that girls weren’t supposed to talk about. Some operated on the punk-grunge dynamic (Courtney Love); some fell into the riot grrrl camp in revolt against the patriarchy (Bikini Kill, Sleater-Kinney); some integrated brutal honesty with folk music (Ani DiFranco); and others like Liz Phair and Alanis Morissette just liked to throw in the word “fuck” every now and then.
PJ Harvey was a special case. Her music has always tilted towards performance art, and her version of Woman Unbound was often expressed through characters. This choice allowed her to insert the proper aesthetic distance between self and subject matter (see Keats, John, re: “negative capability”), and to explore the dark and ugly side of the human psyche with relative abandon. She told The Sunday Times during the Rid of Me promo period, “I’m fascinated with things that might be considered repulsive or embarrassing. I like feeling unsettled, unsure.” During her early years, whenever PJ Harvey made a choice regarding lyrical structure and content, she almost invariably chose the most gruesome imagery, the most abrasive word or the most unsettling character trait.
PJ was going through a rough patch in her life during the period when she composed the songs that appear on Rid of Me and 4-Track Demos, and some of the content qualifies as truly disturbing. The fact that she chose to share those dark thoughts and feelings with the listening public speaks volumes about her artistic courage, for while we all have dark fantasies and impulses of one kind or another sometime in our lives, we are conditioned to share those only with very close friends or with the local neighborhood therapist. The essential difference between the two albums is that the demos were recorded in closer proximity to the emergence of those unsettling emotions.
And that’s why I come down firmly on the side of those who believe that 4-Track Demos was her best early-period work. A while ago I came up with my second official altrockchick theorem regarding the performance and recording of music: “The size of the production must correlate to the essence of the music.” The songs on 4-Track Demos (eight that wound up on Rid of Me and six others) are songs of raw, uncensored emotion, and deserved production that was equally raw and unfiltered . . . i.e., no production at all. Demos are generally aural sketches of mood and theme designed to give the producer an idea of what the artist wants to achieve, but in this case, PJ’s original sketches often have more impact than the finished product. Even Rid of Me producer Steve Albini encouraged PJ to release the demos—and in a strange twist, Albini’s work on Rid of Me was criticized for its “deliberately crude production (that) leaves everything minimal and rough.”
Not rough enough, Steve. Not rough enough.
The demo of “Rid of Me” opens the album; PJ wrote this dramatic monologue about a lover’s revenge when she was “at her illest” and “almost psychotic” after a nasty breakup. While I’m sure the experience of writing the song helped her purge some pretty raw feelings, the artistic goal was to make the psychotic come to life and have her serve as a warning of the dire consequences of obsessive attachment. The official version in Rid of Me kicks off (if you could call it that) with a nearly interminable introduction played at a leisurely pace at relatively low volume. If you’re the least bit familiar with grunge music tropes, you may suspect that you’re being set up for the classic Pixies-influenced soft-LOUD juxtaposition, and BOOM! Right you are! By this time the feature hadn’t quite attained cliché status, but here it is certainly a distraction, a standard-issue musical trick that has nothing to do with this particular situation and attaches an on-off switch to the character’s personality, turning her into a two-dimensional bore. Although you could barely hear PJ in the intro, The LOUD further diminishes PJ’s vocal, masking subtleties and lyrics behind a wall of distortion, heavy bass and Neanderthal drums. You have to strain your ears to hear the piece of monologue that dramatizes the twisted erotic motivation (“Lick my legs I’m on fire”). In the end, the production obliterates the most important character trait of the psychotic narrator: her agitation.
By contrast, the demo version kicks off at a higher speed, imbuing the muffled guitar picking with the missing agitation. PJ’s delivery of the key vocalization, “Hah hah ay hey” is crisp and exciting, communicating that this crazy bitch means business. As the narrative proceeds from that point, we hear the character go further off the rails, largely because we can hear the subtleties—her off-rhythm phrasing, her tonal shifts from supplication to threat, the pressure in her chest, and her voice gradually rising in volume. By the time we get to “‘Til you say don’t you don’t you wish you never never met her” passage, we don’t need the drums and bass to make the point—on the demo, PJ does it all with her manic intensity and distorted power chords that describe the frantic distress of the woman. The “lick my legs” lines are now audible and totally creepy, like, what the fuck, are you trying to seduce me, kill me or both? When I hear the produced version, my response is “Interesting piece.” When I hear the raw version, it scares the living shit out of me because it reminds me of times when I felt similarly ugly feelings myself.
That’s what art is supposed to do!
The demo version also has a certain energy lacking in the studio version—the demo sounds like that moment when a songwriter has tinkered with a song just enough to find the sweet spot, and PJ performs it with the excitement that comes from knowing that you’ve just written one hell of a song. The studio version, by contrast, seems more professional, and if you’ve ever spent any time browsing through the profiles on LinkedIn, you know that professional = boring. I wouldn’t go so far as to classify the studio version as boring, but it does lack a certain gusto.
As for “Legs,” where a similarly disturbed woman cuts the legs off the lover who threatens to leave her, I wouldn’t even bother with the produced version, which comes across as somewhat melodramatic. What makes the demo version a more compelling experience are the vocalizations that accompany the act of cutting, a combination of twisted squeals and feral growls of pain and anguish that could have only come from a woman having an out-of-body experience triggered by intense pain. I’ve only heard sounds similar to the sounds PJ makes on two occasions: once when I was witnessing a close friend give birth; and more commonly when I’ve been engaged in the act of fisting a female partner (I imagine that I sound just as feral when I’m the recipient of a fist, but the experience is so intense that memories are completely attached to the sensation). While the woman in this song is reacting to the experience of mutilating another person (not my bag) and not experiencing the pain herself, I’ve always interpreted those growls to reflect the natural empathy of the female half of the species for the victim—even when she’s the perpetrator.
“Reeling” didn’t make the cut on Rid of Me, but the full band version did appear as the B-Side to the “50ft Queenie” single. Too bad, because the full band version buries what little there is in this song. Polly Jean shifts from gruesome to something close to whimsical, wishing for DeNiro to sit on her face and dreaming of sipping nectar somewhere on the Costa del Sol. I guess it’s kind of a break-in-the-action song that wasn’t considered quite good enough to break any action.
“Snake” is a fresh look at the Adam and Eve myth featuring the serpent as seducer who crawls between Eve’s legs, promises her the world and transforms the dull act of eating a piece of fruit into an orgasmic moment. The moment after Eve swallows the fruit (or Satan’s semen, as it were), PJ gives us another moment of those compelling feral vocalizations, and by the sound of it, Eve is getting a pretty decent bang in the bargain. PJ seems to perpetuate the myth of woman-as-weak by blaming it all on the guy, but I think what she’s getting at here is that women sometimes create the circumstances that lead to victimization . . . a theme that is covered more effectively on “Hook.”
“Hook” is one piece that works better with full production. The storyline tracks the dawning awareness of a modern Eve who sells her soul to a man who happily exploits her weaknesses; whether the references to her being blind and lame are metaphoric or real hardly matters. Once the deal is consummated, she feels trapped (“life is nothing with his chain”) even though she facilitated her imprisonment by validating his masculinity and desire for control (“‘Til my love made me gag/Called him daddy take my hand”). In listening to the demo, it’s obvious that what PJ was going for here was a claustrophobic environment to reflect the mental state of her anti-heroine—vocals, guitar, drums and organ are piled onto the tape to the maximum limits of each channel (I can visualize the meter constantly dancing in the red zone). The recorded version cleans up the noise (and dispenses with a superfluous introduction) while still providing sufficient claustrophobia to make the ironic point: the woman has created her own prison by embracing the “weak female” stereotype in exchange for security.
Both versions of “50ft Queenie” hit the mark, as both are played with the rough intensity demanded by a song that savages pre-existing definitions of gender. Though I do rather like the acoustic guitar picking in the demo version, the electric guitar on the studio version is one of PJ’s best-performed riffs. This is the song that comes closest to realizing PJ’s mission in her early years as described in an interview with Spin: “I had just come out of my teens and at that time you really want to make your mark on the world. So I just wanted to say something that hadn’t been said in that way before. I was trying to cause a riot in one way or another.” “50ft Queenie” is a riot of liberation where the stereotype of “bigger is better” is consumed in a joyous bonfire of distortion and relentless energy.
“Driving” is another track that failed to make the cut for Rid of Me, and while I kinda sorta understand that in terms of “fit,” I’m puzzled that the song hasn’t appeared anywhere else. This is one of my favorite PJ Harvey songs, a poetically economical vignette about a bride who leaves her future oppressor at the altar. In the midst of her flight, she pauses for a moment to reflect on the experience, a reflection expressed through some of PJ’s most memorable lines:
Imagine your whole self is filled with light
Your voice ringing out
Through the whole fucking town
Fuck yeah! Liberation! This demo is one of the rougher ones in terms of sound quality, an “arrangement” of barely-tuned trebly guitar, PJ’s insistent lead vocal and a spate of background vocals that could represent the inner voices urging restraint or the voices of the wedding party united in shock. The chord pattern never varies throughout the song, expressing a strong determination to get the fuck out of there, whatever the cost. Below you’ll find an alternative version with slightly altered lyrics recorded live with a full band featuring PJ giving it all she’s got—-conclusively proving once and for all that “Driving” did not deserve to languish in obscurity.
“Ecstasy” served as the closer for Rid of Me, and here the demo serves as a sketch desperately in need of a fat guitar and thick bass to actualize the bitch-in-heat sensibility of the lyrics. The recorded version maintains the simplicity of the demo, and the bass makes all the difference. What’s remarkable is that there isn’t all that much of a difference in the intensity of PJ’s vocal, telling us that she didn’t need the band’s power to call up her woman-on-the-make persona.
“Hardly Wait” is probably the most “complete” arrangement on 4-Track Demos, the mood established by simple guitar chords with power chord variation in the verses and a metronomic rhythm reinforcing the irritating march of time. The dominant imagery in the song appears in the fade lines, “In my glass coffin/I am waiting.” The source is the Grimm’s fairytale “The Glass Coffin,” where a stag picks up a tailor’s apprentice and carries him on his antlers to a place where he discovers a glass chest containing (yes, you guessed it) a beautiful young maiden. The maiden uses her feminine wiles to convince the apprentice to let her out, whereupon she gives him a bullshit story about how she rejected the marriage proposal of a traveling magician . . . although she didn’t know he was a magician when she gave him the brush-off. “Abracadabra!” cried the pissed-off magic man, and the next thing she knew, our heroine was trapped inside a glass coffin. She agrees to marry the apprentice, trading one coffin for another.
Excuse the editorial commentary on marriage.
PJ plays the maiden, and by the looks of things, this version of the maiden appears to be preggers! When the apprentice shows up, she gets straight to the point: “Here, Romeo, make my water break.” If my interpretation is correct, PJ is describing pregnancy as a glass coffin: you’re in confinement and everyone gazes at you as if you’re part of a freak show.
Not to offend the mothers in the crowd, but if that’s PJ’s editorial comment, I wholeheartedly agree. Pregnancy isn’t an option for me, and I think I’d make a lousy mother. I would make a cool aunt, but alas, I’m an only child.
Way back in 1993, grumpy critic Andy Gill of The Independent criticized Steve Albini’s production of “Rub ‘Till It Bleeds” because “When someone coughs over the strummed intro to ‘Rub ‘Til It Bleeds,’ he doesn’t bother to stop them and start again, or even mix it out.” Hmm. I wonder if he was equally offended by the cough in the intro to “Taxman.” Maybe he would have preferred the demo version, which is certifiably cough-free. Or maybe he found the image of a bleeding penis uncomfortable . . . men are very protective of their johnsons.
Obviously Gill missed how challenging the piece is in terms of managing dynamics. PJ described the experience as “quite a difficult song for me because it took me a long time to get the timing of the pauses right. There are a lot of pauses and it keeps building to a crescendo at the end of each verse. Then when it hits the chorus, it has to explode. That was very hard to get that feel right.” PJ mapped it out pretty well on the demo, and I do prefer the rougher version because she sounds more wicked as she alternates between seduction, excess, fake apology and yanking that thing like there’s no tomorrow.
The rough sex continues with “Easy,” which wins the award for most titillating and troubling song on the album. The music is frigging hot, with PJ in full seductive mode gliding easily over harsh guitar and throwing in sandpapery vocalizations (Hah! Hah!) that mimic the rhythm of a straight-up fuck. From a musical perspective, “Easy” is one of my favorites; from a lyrical perspective, well . . . like many a PJ Harvey song, you can interpret it in multiple ways. The first verse is a mini-ode to “easy girls”, with their “Legs wide, hips swinging like a doorway.” The second verse shifts to the easy girl’s perspective, where she willingly spreads her legs only to run into the classic weak male fear of female power and its corresponding reaction: “I open once and you call me Devil’s gateway.” Yeah, yeah, yeah, it’s all Eve’s fault, we’re all witches who deserve to be burned at the stake, yada, yada, yada. What leads to some confusion is the last verse, where the easy girl appears to accept the male projection and willingly embraces the guilt trip:
And I deserve it
I asked you for it
Have to admit it
We dress like tigers
And I deserve it
You can read those lines in one of two ways: complete submission to the myth of the evil woman or total manipulation of the male ego so he’ll get over it and get on with the fuck. The “I asked you for it” is the common accusation thrown at a rape victim; then again, women do ask for it in either explicit terms (like me!) or through the ambiguous language of seduction. “We dress like tigers” is equally ambiguous, as women have been known to wear lingerie with tiger stripes or leopard spots to suggest “bad girl” status; then again, tigresses are mean fucking animals that will bite your head off in a New York second. I’m generally comfortable with ambiguity, but as a woman who takes pride in her status as a slut, I feel uncomfortable with the indirect approach because it leads men to assume way too much and gives rapists an out. One thing I do know is that “Easy” is a fabulous piece of work and a complex piece of poetry—unsettled and unsure.
The same cannot be said for “M-Bike,” a weak song about a guy who gets a boner over his motorbike instead of his girl. Fortunately, it’s followed by “Yuri-G,” an ass-kicking dramatic monologue apparently delivered by a mentally agitated woman with a moon fetish who is encouraged by her doctor to make a voodoo doll to represent “Luna.” The girl takes tremendous pleasure in torturing the doll (“I stuck them in, I stuck them in real clean/I stuck them in a mile”) but instead of breaking her fetish, she becomes even more obsessed with the object of her fascination:
I drew her down on me
I drew her with a smile
I’d give it all you see
I’d give my sorry eyes
I’d give just everything she’s got me so mesmerized
Yeah I wish I was Yuri-G
It’s just the things that she does to me
The more uninteresting interpretation is that this is a mini-bio of Yuri Gagarin and PJ is using her highly-developed hyperbolic abilities to express the single-mindedness of the astronaut in an unconventional way. A broader interpretation is that the moon has long been a symbol of female power and the struggle here involves the desire to experience lesbian love in its most intense form and the equally strong pull to deny those urges and be a good girl. I don’t give a fuck which interpretation is the correct one, but I love the demo with a passion. The version on Rid of Me is a rhythmic mess and the production somehow manages to turn PJ’s intense and varied vocal—a transition from little girl to raging woman—into a comparatively faint, monotone whisper.
“Goodnight” is the last track, and no, it’s not a cover of Ringo’s silly closer to The White Album, but sort of a country-western grunge tune satirizing American hicks. The word “goodnight” is completely absent from the song, indicating a “mood piece,” and the mood created here is “stupid and thick,” poking fun at merkins who love the wide open prairies. Goodnight, indeed!
Okay, I take it all back . . . sort of. You should listen to Dry, Rid of Me and To Bring You My Love because they’re the works of a true artist in development, deliberately pushing societal and personal boundaries with as much courage as she can muster. It must be exhausting to be PJ Harvey sometimes, but the effort has produced so much rewarding music that I hope PJ has experienced sufficient compensation for the pain. I find her music fascinating, and because I love rough and raw in all its variations, I think 4-Track Demos qualifies as a unique and precious gift of truthfulness in art.