Tag Archives: PJ Harvey

PJ Harvey – Stories from the City Stories from the Sea – Classic Music Review

In an interview with Mojo magazine some years after Stories from the City, Stories from the Sea was released, PJ Harvey said, “I felt like I got lost around that record. I wanted to try writing lots of perfect pop songs. It’s great to set oneself projects, but they also have to ring true to your heart and soul. Pop music isn’t where my heart is at.”

Polly—may I call you Polly? Great. Polly, let me give you some friendly advice.

Shut up.

Artists are terribly neurotic people, always second-guessing themselves, forever offering alternative explanations and unnecessary excuses for past works that don’t fit the new self-narrative they’re trying to spin to the media. Ray Davies disowned his theatrical works, Ian Anderson called A Passion Play “one-dimensional,” and John Lennon tried to rewrite history dozens of times when he wanted to discount past offerings that failed to serve his desire to project himself as an artiste. Sometimes the change of heart is in reaction to criticism (Davies and Anderson), but more often it’s an artist on a personal growth trajectory who can’t bear to think about the earlier, allegedly inferior version of themselves that bears no resemblance to the image they wish to promulgate in the present.

And hey, Polly, when promoting Stories from the City, Stories from the Sea, you told Q Magazine, “I wanted everything to sound as beautiful as possible. Having experimented with some dreadful sounds on Is This Desire and To Bring You My Love—where I was really looking for dark, unsettling, nauseous-making sounds—Stories From The City . . . was the reaction. I thought, No, I want absolute beauty. I want this album to sing and fly and be full of reverb and lush layers of melody. I want it to be my beautiful, sumptuous, lovely piece of work.”

Mission accomplished. So—you went through a phase that was a natural, balancing response to a previous phase. The result of that balancing act was a beautiful album. Shut up.

And as you also noted in that interview, the album is “pop according to PJ Harvey, which is probably as un-pop as you can get according to most people’s standards.” Ahem. Art is not limited to those genres given the seal of approval by the cognoscenti, and as I have noted many times before, simply because a work is popular doesn’t mean it isn’t art. Willie Shakespeare was pretty popular in his day, as were Dickens, Liszt, Louis Armstrong, Frank Sinatra and the aforementioned Mr. Lennon. As for the label, “pop music,” the term is quite elastic and has morphed considerably over time. For the past twenty years, “pop” has meant “shitty repetitive music produced by entertainers who couldn’t survive without autotune.” Stories from the City, Stories from the Sea does not come close to fitting the definition of pop in vogue at the time of the album’s release, so . . .


Stories from the City, Stories from the Sea does indeed feature many moments of beauty, and vocally, PJ never sounded better. There’s also plenty of power in many of the tracks, but instead of the raw power highlighted on her first three albums, we hear a more disciplined and intentional use of power that makes for some terribly exciting moments. Consisting of songs she wrote during the period she lived in New York and others she wrote back home in Dorset, the material on the album ranges from edgy to ethereal, from spacious to claustrophobic, from fearful to loving. It seems that PJ was far more worried about the “pop” label than anyone else, as contemporary buyers of pop paid little attention to the three singles released from the album, none of which came close to cracking the top 30. No, Stories from the City, Stories from the Sea is still 100% certifiable PJ Harvey: curious, complex and endlessly compelling. The darkness that characterized her music prior to Stories isn’t replaced by sunshine and lollipops but presented in a more nuanced and detached manner, as if Polly Jean had embraced the universal truth of yin and yang instead of spending all her time yinning.

Yay! I made a new verb!

While inventing language on the fly is about as creative as I ever get (outside of the bedroom, of course), for PJ Harvey, talent is both a gift and an obsession. The obsessive aspect of her creative side makes it natural for her to portray obsessive characters, whether it’s the broad trying to guilt Billy into accepting his paternal responsibilities or the paranoid nutcase in “Big Exit” who convinces herself that she could be safe from the bad, bad world if only she had access to a gun. This is a woman seriously trapped in the fight-flight loop, driven by her irrational response to fears both real and imagined:

Look out ahead
I see danger come
I want a pistol
I want a gun
I’m scared baby
I wanna run
This world’s crazy
Give me the gun

Baby, baby
Ain’t it true
I’m immortal
When I’m with you
But I want a pistol
In my hand
I wanna go to
A different land

As the narrator later complains about “too many cops/too many guns,” we can safely assume that this is one of the songs where PJ reflected on her experience in the USA, a place where irrational fear combines with illogic to create a country where guns are cherished more than children. PJ’s vocal is sufficiently over-the-top to capture the woman’s deep-seeded anxiety and the short-circuited left side of her brain, but what I find most impressive about this characterization is that the woman uses a seductive tone to try to get her lover to hand over the .38. Sex and violence have always been integrated in American culture and celebrated simultaneously in American art—think Bonnie and Clyde, Fatal Attraction—the list is endless. PJ didn’t stay all that long in the States (less than a year as a resident), but she still managed to perceive some of the bizarre aspects of the American psyche that befuddle most of the other inhabitants of the planet.

The music is equally fascinating, opening with a simple G-F-G-F guitar riff in stereo soon backed by a hard-strummed guitar open-tuned to G with no third (resulting in a G5-G7 pattern, NOT the Gm incorrectly cited on several chord sites). Getting rid of the third (here the B note) creates a stronger drone effect, an insistent sound that mirrors the character’s equally insistent fixation on pistol as problem solver. The sense of alarm in the first verse is intensified because the only sounds are that guitar ensemble, a relatively faint snare and PJ’s voice. When the bass comes in on the first-go-round of the chorus—which also involves a key change to Dm—I get the chills I often get from those little moments of simple brilliance that make music such a delightful experience. As the song proceeds, the band throws in other sounds (including a harpsichord, believe it or not) until the stop-time bridge gives us another key change (Gm) and the superficial reflections of a woman completely incapacitated by life’s contradictions, by the simultaneous existence of yin and yang:

Sometimes it rains so hard
And I feel the hurt
In my heart
Feels like the end of the world
I see the children
Sharp as knives
I see the children
Dead and alive
Beautiful people
Beautiful girls
I just feel like
It’s the end of the world

PJ leaves the woman in psychic paralysis, permanently trapped in the inability to accept reality as multi-dimensional. The “big exit” of the title is also multi-dimensional: it has echoes of the “big sleep” from film noir, the woman’s desire to escape the world’s contradictions and her latent urge to kill. “Big Exit” is a rich musical and lyrical experience, a phrase you rarely hear applied to “pop songs.”

The practice of withholding resolution to the root chord is repeated in the exuberant “Good Fortune,” where PJ begins the verses on the noncommittal combination of Am9/G6 before settling on C major to wrap up the sequence (don’t bother with the chords cited on Wikipedia, because they’re wrong, too). These extended suspensions are remarkably effective in raising the anticipation of resolution, so when PJ reluctantly lands on the root, the experience is infinitely more satisfying than say the classic trope of seventh-chord-to-root that you’ll find in a billion blues and rock songs. PJ has more comfort with ambiguity than most musicians, and the reluctance to find resolution is both an acceptance of life’s unpredictability and a deep desire to milk every experience for all that it’s worth.

This chosen restlessness also manifests itself in “Good Fortune” through references to the gypsy experience, a longing for a life on the move where routines and garden-variety expectations are replaced by improvising in the here and now. The image of the gypsy was not chosen at random; it was chosen because gypsies are a stigmatized group treated like outlaws in part for refusing to abandon their peripatetic ways for metro-boulot-dodo. Unlike the paralyzed narrator in “Bad Exit,” PJ comes down hard on the side of the flight response and its illicit connotations:

So I take my
Good fortune
And I fantasize
Of our leaving
Like some modern-day
Gypsy landslide
Like some modern-day
Bonnie and Clyde
On the run again (On the run again)

Hopefully the modern-day Bonnie and Clyde left the guns on the rack.

The desire to leave it all behind also defies our expectations of what “good fortune” looks like. For most people in the western world, good fortune is something that brings fame or enough money to do whatever the fuck we want. PJ diminishes the value of both fame and fortune earlier in the song by reducing those aspects of good fortune to “been there, done that.”

Things I once thought
In my life
Have all taken place

Fortunately for the rest of us, PJ hasn’t yet formed her own band of gypsies, and I doubt that she’ll do that until she’s completely exhausted the artistic need for self-expression. Given her stated desire to produce albums that sound completely different from preceding efforts, I think she’s found a way to manifest her gypsy spirit through her music, and I am so good with that.

The truth is you can escape social norms without going anywhere, if you’re fortunate enough to find and nurture a genuine, loving relationship where all parties dedicate themselves to the full realization of self and other. This is the subject matter of “A Place Called Home,” a song that supports the notion of mitigating the dehumanizing effects of society through the open arms of a supportive relationship. As a person who has adopted what society terms an alternative lifestyle, I relate deeply to this song, and it’s the only PJ Harvey song I’ve thoroughly learned and performed during the annual family get-togethers, with my mother or partner joining me on the layered call-and-response vocals in the chorus.

It’s not a difficult song to learn, as the guitar chords are pretty standard fare designed to give the singer lots of room to maneuver. That maneuverability is most obvious in the chorus where PJ delivers the lead vocals within normal range while raising her voice an octave to deliver the tender, encouraging responses (my love, come on). Where the flexibility of a steady baseline really pays off is in the second verse, where PJ varies her phrasing so that the lines “I stumble, I stumble” defy the rhythm, amplifying the emotional impact of separation:

I walk, I wade
Through full lands and lonely
I stumble, I stumble
With you I wait
To be born again
With love comes the day
Just hold on to me

Equally impactful is the chord change on the last verse, where the Am-F pattern is abandoned for the richer complementary pattern of C-G-D2-Am that transforms the static melody into a stirring call for action:

Now is the time
To follow through
To read the signs
Now the message sent
Let’s bring it to its final end

I’ll borrow a phrase from PJ’s statement of intent and declare that “A Place Called Home” is an absolute beauty of a song.

The darker side of the relationship-as-refuge theme is explored in “One Line.” Here love is seen as a survival mechanism, a need more than a desire, a sanctuary from the human propensity for violence, whether on the streets or on the battlefield. While I love the guitar riff and appreciate the message, the structure follows the soft-LOUD Pixieseque style PJ embraced more frequently in her early days, resulting in an arrangement that’s a bit too predictable. Kindred spirit Thom Yorke makes his first appearance on the album, serving up wordless background vocals that enhance the troubled mood.

Thom appears more prominently on “Beautiful Feeling,” an eerie, spare song with mystic overtones that sounds like it belongs on Is This Desire? Each verse describes a life experience that evokes a beautiful feeling: the experience of life itself; the enrichment of culture through immigration in the form of a smiling Mexican boy; and last but never least, the experience of spontaneous attraction to another human being:

And when I watch you move
And I can’t think straight
And I am silenced
And I can’t think straight
And it’s the best thing
It’s the best thing
The best thing
Such a beautiful feeling

Though the song celebrates beautiful experiences, the mood is long-past-midnight: the fingers forming the notes on the fretboard remain firmly planted on the lower strings; Thom Yorke’s dreamy, moaning vocal enhances the general eeriness; and PJ’s sounds like a woman calling up memories as she fades into sleep from a state of sheer exhaustion.

The sleep is delightfully interrupted by an oscillating note that gathers volume and explodes into the full guitar chords that herald the arrival of “The Whores Hustle and the Hustlers Whore.” Although in the current world environment there is a strong urge to interpret the song as one that calls out the thoroughly corrupt and greedy politicians who control the governments in both the U.K. and the United States, the only verse that I can comfortably attribute to the spread of political decay is the second verse:

Speak to me of your inner charm
Of how you’ll keep me safe from harm
I don’t think so, I don’t see
Speak to me of your inner peace

That last line is killer, for if there’s one quality that defines too many career politicians it is the complete lack of conscience and integrity, without which it is impossible to even grasp the concept of “inner peace.” But while most politicians embody the hustler-whore duality, PJ sees the problem as both individual and universal, an affliction that impacts the poor and powerless as thoroughly as the rich and powerful. Whoring and hustling are the norms in The City and on Wall Street, in our search for work and the way we work, and in the way most people manifest sexual interest in another person. In this maddeningly toxic state of affairs, we’re all searching for a “fix” in one form or another:

Speak to me of heroin and speed
Of genocide and suicide, of syphilis and greed
Speak to me the language of love
The language of violence, the language of the heart
This isn’t the first time I’ve asked for money or love
Heaven and earth don’t ever mean enough
Speak to me of heroin and speed
Just give me something I can believe

PJ’s soaring soprano on the fade feels to me like an expression of passionate grieving for a world spinning off its axis, where, in Yeats’ insightful words, “The best lack all conviction, while the worst/Are full of passionate intensity.”

Thom Yorke’s earlier background vocals were just a warmup for the full meal deal, the vocal “duet” with PJ on “The Mess We’re In.” I place “duet” in quotation marks because the word implies a joining of voices in harmony, and the two characters in “The Mess We’re In” rarely harmonize, “talk” over each other and sometimes even talk to themselves. As the city sun sets on their affair, we learn that he’s into lovemaking as portrayed in movies and she experiences a tingle in her twat when she feels his sweat on her skin (eliciting a gorgeous moan that is the highlight of the song for me). Their voices do contrast nicely with each other, with Thom taking the high notes while PJ staying low in a subtle dig at gender stereotypes . . . but the pairing is a bit jarring, as noted by Lauren O’Neal on Rumpus

Yorke’s favored approach to sex has been to never mention it because he’s too busy singing about the frantic, inexorable alienation inherent in postmodern society. (I mean, the mongrel cat in “Myxomatosis” manages to fit a brief fling in before getting “edited, fucked up, strangled, beaten up,” “buried in a burning black hole,” “skinned alive,” and so on and so forth. Good for him, I guess.) Meanwhile, Harvey has sung a lot about sex, but usually in the most aggressive, non-erotic ways possible. A brief highlight reel: “You leave me dry,” “You bend over, Casanova,” “I’ve lain with the devil,” “You snake, you crawled between my legs”—plus that whole “statues of women exposing their labia” thing. And that’s just off the top of my head.

I’m also more than slightly creeped out when I hear Thom refer to his partner in the affair as “baby.” The use of that term in a Radiohead song is unthinkable. Despite all my quibbles, I like the song—or more accurately, I’m fascinated by it.

Now that Thom’s gone off to tie up loose ends on Kid A, PJ returns to center stage with “You Said Something,” a piece with a folk-rock flavor presented in waltz time. The song is arranged well, and the combo of multi-instrumentalists (PJ, Mick Harvey and Rob Ellis) provide their typically professional, understated support. Sadly, the song is rather like a joke without a punchline, as PJ tells her unseen friend on two different occasions “Then you said something/I’ve never forgotten,” and then forgets to let us in on the secret. In the last line she describes her friend’s comment as “really important,” but if it was so fucking important, why not share it with your listeners? I find the experience of “You Said Something” intensely aggravating, in large part because it’s a fundamentally solid song that ends with a pfffft.

At this point, PJ deviates from the script and gives us back-to-back rough-and-nasty. “Kamikaze” is allegedly another love-gone-bad song, but the metaphors are both hyperbolic and tenuous, making it quite a challenge to finally figure out PJ is desperately attempting to rid herself of a self-destructive asshole who wants to take her down with him. The music increases in intensity through the first and second verses, reaching a peak in the chorus, where PJ goes high soprano and Rob Ellis launches an extended assault on the drum kit that never lets up until the finish. It’s a nice burst of energy after a relatively low-key album, and a solid warm-up for the far more direct and to-the-point “This Is Love.”

If you’ve read my bio on the home page, you’ll know that life priority #1 is sex. I utterly reject the label of nymphomaniac, defined by Merriam-Webster as “one affected by nymphomania : a female who has an excessive desire for sexual activity.” Q: Who decides what is “excessive?” A: Men! The word is primarily used in the context of slut-shaming, and the implication of the term is that a woman must learn to control her sexual urges while men can fuck with reckless abandon. Women who “sleep around” are whores; men who sleep around are guys just being guys. The male fear of “excessive” female desire has been present in nearly all human cultures from time immemorial, manifesting itself in customs as ludicrous as the expectation that women remain virgins until they marry and as horrific as female genital mutilation, a still-active ritual that has resulted in the disfiguration of more than 200 million girls living today.
When I say I’m proud to be a slut, it doesn’t mean I’ll fuck anyone for any reason. It means I’m not afraid to express my sexual desire and see no earthly reason to hide that desire. The word “nymphomaniac” implies a woman who is out of control, and I am always conscious and intentional about sex, from the earliest communication of desire to the expression of eroticism in the heat of the moment. To me, sexual honesty on the part of a woman is a blessed act of liberation. So, when I hear PJ Harvey sing the opening lines of “This Is Love” without the slightest hint of shame or embarrassment, I feel a lot more than satisfaction—I feel validation.

I can’t believe that life’s so complex
When I just want to sit here and watch you undress
I can’t believe that life’s so complex
When I just want to sit here and watch you undress
This is love, this is love
That I’m feeling (3)

As far as I’m concerned, the “it’s not love, it’s lust” crowd can all go fuck themselves! That said, we live in a rather judgmental, narrow-minded world, so some temperance is called for:

Even in the summer
Even in the spring
You can never get too much of
A wonderful thing
You’re the only story that I never told
You’re my dirty little secret, wanna keep you so

PJ is using the phrase “dirty little secret” in the way we LGBTQ people have transformed the epithet “queer” into a positive expression of identity. We have to protect our love from the cruel judgment of various religious types and other judgmental assholes, but we don’t think anything we do is dirty—it’s just love, love, love.

PJ’s vocal reflects this rejection of convention in a tone combining more than a hint of sacred lust and a stance of “what the fuck, people?” that you hear in many early rock songs that incorporate social criticism, from “Summertime Blues” to “Get Off My Cloud.” This style of rock is a particular sweet spot for PJ, having grown up (like me!) with parents who played 60’s rock and classic blues all day and all of the night. My kind of woman and my kind of song!

“Horses in My Dreams” is literally a poetic translation of one of PJ’s dreams. With due apologies to the Jungians in the crowd, not all dream symbols arise from the collective unconscious, and common dream symbols do not necessarily share a universal meaning. In this case, though, the characteristics assigned to the horses in PJ’s dream are pretty close to standard dream interpretations of horses as “symbolic of passion, drive and desire for personal freedom,” as noted on Dreamstop (Freud believed horses represented the sexual drive and power of the dreamer, but then again, Freud would). This pretty much tracks the imagery in the song, where PJ describes horses as “Like waves, like the sea/They pull out of here/They pull, they are free.” Later she claims she has “set myself free again” and that “I have pulled myself clear.” Never having had any contact with horses (they were pretty rare in San Francisco, I guess), I can’t relate to the symbol, but I certainly can relate to the power of dreams to facilitate personal growth and clarity. While PJ’s horses evoke nothing in me, her quest for freedom (artistic, sexual, expressive) definitely moves me. I like the relative quiet of the song, its curious melody and her rather rough, just-got-out-of-bed vocal quality.

We end our experience of PJ Harvey’s definition of beauty with “We Float,” a study in contrasts where the verses provide the yin and the chorus supplies the yang. The dark verses, built around a morose D-E-F pattern on piano, describe a relationship that turned sour when the pursuit of success became a sick addiction to accumulating more, more, more—an itch that can never be scratched.

We wanted to find love
We wanted success
Until nothing was enough
Until my middle name was excess

While her partner vanishes into the bustling anonymity of the city, the narrator is left without the false anchors she used in a vain attempt to ground herself:

I was in need of help
Heading to blackout
‘Till someone told me “run on in honey
Before somebody blows your goddamn brains out”

Trying to make sense of things, all the narrator can come up with is “something broke inside,” and while that may sound vague and weak, she is quite certain that it was the drive for success that ruined the relationship. She now clings to the hope that a solution can be found in the Taoist mantra to “do nothing and nothing will be left undone”:

But now
We float
Take life as it comes

The music here changes to a gentle, flowing rhythm and a chord pattern containing a softening minor seventh as PJ’s voice rises in a moment of delectable beauty. The final verse is the post-mortem, where it becomes clear that their great mistake was to believe freedom comes from having lots of money and refusing to see wealth as the quicksand trap it is:

So will we die of shock?
Die without a trial?
Die on Good Friday?
While holding each other tight
This is kind of about you
This is kind of about me
We just kinda lost our way
We were looking to be free

The song and album end on the extended repetition of the “we float” theme, a triumph of beauty and intimacy over ugliness and greed.

Stories from the City, Stories from the Sea received oodles of accolades and a spot on several all-time best album lists, guaranteeing that PJ would follow it up by going in the opposite direction and “get back to the earthy, rootsy, more dirty side of things” with Uh Uh Her . . . which led her to slam the brakes and turn the car around with White Chalk . . . then carve out a completely different path with  Let England Shake . . . which opened the door to socio-political songs and The Hope Six Demolition Project. The directional changes that followed have done nothing to diminish the value of Stories, whether PJ Harvey likes it or not. The experience allowed her to expand her songwriting range and explore the possibilities inherent in melody without damaging her artistic cred one iota.

Polly, it’s a damned good album, so SHUT THE FUCK UP!

PJ Harvey – 4-Track Demos – Classic Music Review

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 1980’s. 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 still remaining open to exploring the darkness in different ways.

Operating in parallel to grunge was the emergence of what I’ll call the Woman Unbound movement, when 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 on 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 actually 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 on 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 of 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 for 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 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 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 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 is 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 really 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 absolutely 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.

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