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PJ Harvey – The Trailblazer

Submitted by on 22 Aug 2008 – 10:31 AM Comments

PJ Harvey, the trailblazerDemure in stature but enormous in sound, Polly Jean Harvey is one of the most singular voices of our generation. Over the course of her fifteen-year career, Harvey has become known for her raw, minimalist sound and her visceral take on the blues. But perhaps most thrilling is her ever-changing voice, which is chameleon-like in its ability to transform into a variety of characters. Harvey has become equally known for never making the same album twice. Her latest effort, White Chalk, finds Harvey once again treading new ground. But this time she has traded in her guitar for a piano.

From the onset of her career, which began in 1991 in a small town in South West Eng- land called Dorset, Harvey (then with a three-piece band also known as PJ Harvey) was raising quite a ruckus. Her first two singles, “Dress” and “Sheela-Na-Gig,” both released on the label Too Pure, were a swift kick to the ribs; all lacerating guitars and airtight rhythm sections. Her lyrics were both funny and frightening, her time signatures of- ten unconventional, and her voice forceful yet vulnerable, untrained yet in control. It wasn’t long before Too Pure gave her a re- cord deal, and the result was Dry.

Hailed by critics and fans alike, a major-label bidding war soon took place. Harvey opted for Island Records. Harvey’s success was so instantaneous that she suffered a mild breakdown and began to see a therapist. It was around this time that the songs for her first major-label re- lease, Rid of Me, began. Produced by indie-legend Steve Albini, Rid of Me is a cataclysmic thunderbolt of sound. If Dry was a mudslide, Rid of Me was an avalanche. It was also to be the final album by PJ Harvey, the band. Enter PJ Harvey, the solo artist. “To Bring You My Love” marked a distinct change in sound and image. Gone was the bombastic assault of Dry and Rid of Me’s three- piece line up. “In it’s place” is the slow burn of swamp-tinged Delta blues, featuring an entire new group of musicians, with Harvey herself on organ and guitar. She also adapted a larger-than-life look complete with hair-extensions, a red satin dress, and heavily exaggerated facial features (a look Polly herself has described as “Joan Craw- ford on acid”). In 1998 Harvey explored even murkier territory with the electronicat-inged funeral dirges of Is this De- sire? But she wouldn’t achieve the success of to Bring You My Love again until 2000’s Stories from the City, Stories from the Sea. Upbeat, lush, and melodic, Stories was again a massive departure for Harvey. One for which she won the Mercury Music Prize in 2001. Harvey followed Stories with 2004’s Uh Huh Her, which she recorded, performed, and produced entirely herself (with the exception of Rob Ellis on drums). She embarked on another world tour and soon began to lay plans for 2007’s White Chalk. Haunting, ethereal, Victorian in it’s aesthetics but timeless in sound, White Chalk is Harvey’s first fully idealized masterpiece since 1995’s to Bring You My Love. Embedded deep within the tapestry of White Chalk is a haunting narrative of epic proportions, one that demands close attention to de- code. But that is the nature of an artist as uncompromising as Polly Harvey. For every drop of blood, sweat, and tears she pours into her carefully planned albums, she demands nearly as much out of her listeners. This is a game of give-and- take that fans have grown to look for- ward to.

Bruce Scott


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