Polly Jean Harvey, better known as PJ Harvey, is a musician whose pedigree is unrivalled. She is undoubtedly an artist of the finest quality, akin to something of a British Bob Dylan. Throughout her career, Harvey has been committed to pushing boundaries, both sonically and socially, with a fluid creative vision that has earned her legions of followers in the process.
Although she’s been an ever-present fixture of the British music scene for 30 years, it all started with the PJ Harvey Trio’s debut album in 1992, Dry, which is something of an overlooked gem in her discography. A wonderfully gritty body of work, the LP contains flecks of the experimentalism that Harvey would become known for when she struck out as a solo artist in 1995 with To Bring You My Love.
Discussing the work in reflection, Harvey told Filter magazine in 2004: “Dry is the first chance I ever had to make a record and I thought it would be my last. So, I put everything I had into it. It was a very extreme record. It was a great joy for me to be able to make it. I never thought I’d have that opportunity, so I felt like I had to get everything on it as well as I possibly could, because it was probably my only chance. It felt very extreme for that reason.”
You can tell that Harvey put her all into the album, as every cut is imbued with her ferocious passion, and there’s an otherworldly energy that carries the record. Much of this can be attributed to the primal rhythms created by drummer Rob Ellis and bassist Steve Vaughan. Ellis’ multi-instrumental work on Dry helps to drag the album out of the ordinary and give it a bite that has you on the edge of your seat, wondering what’s coming next.
Musically, the album is the most rudimentary album that Harvey has released, but this should not put you off. There’s beauty in its minimalism, and it gives room for Harvey’s emotive and slightly theatrical vocals to do their thing, in a similar way you’d expect a Patti Smith record to work.
As soon as the swooning album opener, ‘Oh My Love’, comes crashing in with its fuzzy guitars and languid pace, Harvey whisks you into her strange musical world that is as enchanting as an Arthurian tale but as scary as a Victorian gothic novel. The dissonant keys at the end are also fantastic and aptly create tension in this dream world that the Dorset native creates.
As soon as the thunderous ‘O Stella’ pounds through the speakers, it is easy to understand exactly why alt-rock legends Kurt Cobain and Steve Albini loved Harvey so much. It’s gritty, sludgy and sinister-sounding, and in reality, it could quite easily have been an early release from Seattle label Sub Pop, with many similarities to Mudhoney cuts such as ‘Touch Me I’m Sick’. ‘Dress’ is also a standout, and there’s no surprise why it’s remained a fan favourite of hers for three decades.
The album then goes from strength to strength, and in all honesty, there’s no down point. From PJ’s slide guitar on ‘Victory’ to the jangly blues of ‘Happy and Bleeding’ to the album highlight ‘Sheela-Na-Gig‘, the listener remains immersed the entire time, pulled in by the mix of earworms and interesting lyrical subjects.
A seriously underrated cut on Dry is track nine, ‘Plants and Rags’. An experimental piece featuring some Nirvana-esque acoustic guitar work from Harvey, Ellis’ contribution is noisy, raucous and challenging. His multi-instrumental work floats in and out of the harmonious and dissonant, creating a track that was the most apparent indicator of the things to come for PJ Harvey.
PJ Harvey was not any old Generation X star. Yes, this was alt-rock, but what she did with it was game-changing. Upon hearing ‘Plants and Rags’, you understand exactly why she blew up so quickly. It’s as much a piece of art as it is music, and given everything that was going on musically at the time, you have to say fair play to her. This was new, refreshing and for the future.
An incredible album that’s well worth a listen if you haven’t already, Dry will have you captivated from the get-go. The album that started it all for PJ Harvey is as essential as any of her other subsequent releases, and I think it’s time it got showered with more love.