Polly Jean Harvey is a mercurial talent. The singer-songwriter has been at the forefront of captivating and poised avant-garde rock ‘n’ roll since her debut in 1992. While you may not have caught the incredible PJ Harvey when she first arrived, there’s no reason why you can’t delve into the back catalogue and find out why Harvey is considered one of the best in her class. What better way to do that than with our six definitive songs.
Through our brand new feature, we’re trying to offer a little education into rock music’s greatest performers and songwriters. With six of their most definitive songs, the tracks that may not be their best-selling or most well-known but are the intrinsic qualities that make up the artist, we’re offering the ultimate crash-course in history’s greatest. Next up is the wildly talented Polly Jean Harvey.
Harvey began her musical career in 1988 when she joined a local band Automatic Dlamini as a vocalist, guitarist and saxophone player. During her tenure with the group, she also developed a strong friendship with John Parish, a longtime collaborator. In 1991, PJ Harvey was formed as a trio under Harvey’s name and direction producing two records Dry and Rid of Me before Harvey went completely solo.
“I work on words, mostly, toward them being poetry or short stories, and then some of those become songs,” the artist once explained. “They all find their place in the world, but they all start off in the same place. I’m always painting and drawing as well, and it’s an ongoing creative assignment,” she added, in what is a clear indication of the complex creativity in which she draws from.
She added: “With songs I almost see the images, see the action, and then all I have to do is describe it. It’s almost like watching a scene from a film, and that’s what I go about trying to catch in a song.”
Releasing nine studio albums, Harvey has always displayed a keen sense of insight, of searing intellectualism and, of course, an incredible ear. Though Harvey is most well-known for her vocals and guitar playing, she’s a gifted composer and multi-instrumentalist.
Below, we’ve got six songs that prove it.
PJ Harvey six definitive songs:
Taken from Harvey’s debut album Dry, there is something utterly captivating about ‘Sheela-Na-Gig’ that tells you absolutely everything you need to know about Polly Harvey. The second and final single from the record, the song is laced with vicious intellect and a ferocious appetite for riffs. Subversive and sultry, it smacks of the kind of impetus Harvey would imbue all of her work with.
The title was a reference to the eponymous Sheela Na gig statues; figurative carvings of naked women displaying an exaggerated vulva found which can be found throughout Britain and Ireland. Focusing on male fantasies of female submissiveness, Harvey uses her intrinsic ability to craft scathing lyrics to poke fun at their attempts to cage her in the same way, noting their cowardice: “He said, ‘Wash your breasts, I don’t want to be unclean / He said, ‘Please take those dirty pillows away from me.’”
‘Rid of Me’ (1993)
Harvey sophomore record may well be her most beloved. Rid of Me announced Harvey as a powerhouse performer and expert songwriter. Musically, the album, and its titular track, is a slowly-growing familiar sound of menace and malicious intent. Harvey was fairly pleased herself: “I do everything for myself primarily and I was happy with it,” she once explained. “I don’t really listen when people say good things about my work because I tend to not give myself praise about anything. But I was really pleased with Rid of Me. For that period of my life, it was perfect. Well, it wasn’t perfect but as near to as I could get at that time”
The title track opens the album and begins the journey of intrigue that Harvey lays out. It’s hard to avoid comparisons with her friend and ex-partner Nick Cave but, in truth, Harvey’s sound feels entirely unique. The touch of vulnerable softness or poetic majesty she can add to tracks, like some of the vocal trills in this song, captures her humanity until the tenderness gives way and Harvey delivers her demonic right hook.
‘Down By the Water’ (1995)
Of course, we couldn’t avoid adding perhaps Harvey’s most famous song ‘Down By the Water’ on our list. The track remains one of her definitive sounds and the track, as close to classic rock as Harvey gets, is full to the brim with deep grunge motifs and darkened glitching electronics and the pluck of a string section.
It’s quite the array of threads to bring together yet, somehow, Harvey manages to make the track thematically align and become an entrancing piece of avant-garde alt-rock. Released in 1995 while folks were still screaming “Parklife!” in her face, Harvey showed not only the art of storytelling, nor unimaginable expression, but she did it all with the swagger of a bonafide rock God.
‘This is Love’ (2000)
When Harvey released Stories from the City, Stories from the Sea in 2000 she pulled off yet another joyous transformation. From the marauding and menacing musical Boudicca she had been, she now stepped into a polished and stylish 21st-century model. Streamlined down to her blue punk roots, Harvey thrashed her way through a pop record or as Polly herself puts it, “pop according to PJ Harvey, which is probably as un-pop as you can get to most people’s standards.”
There’s no better showing of pop according to PJ Harvey than on ‘This Is Love’. A foot-stomping, beer-spilling pounder, Harvey delivers as close to a pop song as you’ll ever hear from and while there is a pursuit of glitz rather than grime lyrically, it is still a song rich with Harvey’s unstoppable imagination.
‘When Under Ether’ (2007)
Polly Harvey was, by now, a well-known thrasher. Her ability to add her flourishing and poetic lyrics to such visceral music was part of her trademark but, on ‘When Under Ether’, she proves she can commit her lyrical atrocities with a quieter tone too. White Chalk saw Harvey turn to the piano for her musical armoury and, with it, she delivered one of her landmark studio LPs.
On ‘When Under Ether’, Harvey is deeply sparse as she allows the content of the song—taking on the idea of religion, addiction and abortion among other things—to be given more space to land effectively. It makes it one of Harvey’s most arresting songs, utterly captivating in every way, it’s a moment of artistic clarity for the singer.
‘On Battleship Hill’ (2011)
Taken from Let England Shake, quite possibly one of Harvey’s finest albums of all time, the track was written directly about the 1915 battle of Gallipoli. The event was a bungled attempt to seize Constantinople which left much of the Kiwi and Australian Army wiped out. Harvey told NME: “Battleship Hill was the place of a particularly bloody battlefield. The ‘scent of thyme’ was because it grows wild in Gallipoli.”
The song is yet another extension of Harvey’s talent, being able to reflect more deeply on the touching side of humanity. She engages every single sense on this classic track Harvey told The Sun about this song: “Throughout the songs on the album, nature plays a great role. I’d chosen to look at a lot of ancient folk songs from all over the world. Songs from hundreds of years ago passed down the line in Cambodia, Ireland, Vietnam, Russia. And a theme which comes through in all these countries’ music is your relationship to the land.
“The lyric: ‘I hear the wind say, cruel nature has won again,’ captures that feeling. No matter what happens to us, nature will always be there. Which is comforting but also quite brutal.”