There are few female musicians like PJ Harvey; artists who are so out of this world and cerebral yet shockingly raw and of the present. There are quite a few male artists like that, Tom Waits and Nick Cave to mention a few. Many female artists take the more intimate path, that though delightful in it’s own way, doesn’t give quite the same wow factor of Waits or Cave. But then there are the female artists like PJ Harvey or Kate Bush or Bjork, artists that command attention and a sense of powerful showmanship that makes you say “wow.”
I said “wow” the first time I heard “Down by the Water,” the first PJ Harvey song I ever listened to. I said “wow” when I listened to Rid of Me for the first time, but it was Dry that brought out the biggest “wow.” I marveled at her assertiveness, her intensity and her raw and naked lyrics. I imagined this tiny, elfin woman with large, intense eyes singing, crooning these songs against such aggressive, muscular arrangements. I ate up every exaggerated tone, every brutal word; was there any doubt that I adore this woman?
Dry was released right before Riot Grrrl took hold and, though Harvey took no part in the movement, her voice stands as a cousin of the genre. Here she is, singing about her sex, her gender and playing it with Blues-inflected Post-Punk guitars and she sounds stronger than most men that I know. Opening track “Oh My Lover” seemingly has Harvey taking the apologetic role of a lovesick girl, but the manner in which she sings words like “take at your leisure, take whatever you can find,” it seems disingenuous, as if she’s mocking the submissive position. However, gradually the tone changes and becomes more sincere as if Harvey is addressing the play of the two traits in a relationship.
“Dress” is one of the more forceful songs on the album, with thundering drums propelling the song and shocking additions of a screechy double bass (kudos to Ben Groenevelt for some outstanding work on the song). The song is almost frantic as Harvey sings as a sexual and predatory woman: “music play, make it good for romancing.” It’s a wildly sensual song Harvey throws herself in it; she’s almost animalistic in the way that she sings. Her performance is fantastic and breathtaking. Throughout the album, shades of sexual frankness show themselves, but unlike say, Liz Phair, it’s not certain that Harvey is even singing about herself. Her lyrics are enigmatic enough to leave things to the listener’s imagination, making an interesting listening experience.
“Sheela Na Gig” is one of Dry‘s best-known songs and one of the best on the album. The title of the song comes from the name of a Celtic goddess who is traditionally shown in carvings as having exaggerated genetalia. Harvey sings cheekily “look at these my child bearing hips, look at these my ruby red ruby lips” as she plays with the paradigm of the “good wife” and a woman who is more sexually charged. It’s something that many women explore and Harvey does so in such a charged and aggressive way, yet it touches the very heart of the matter: that women are just as sexually driven as men, but have the added weight of living up to the “good wife and mother” expectations.
Harvey is no girl-next door; if I saw her on the street, chances are I’d be too intimidated to say a single word to her. Her presence is so palpable, that even when you’re listening to the album in the comfort of your own home, it still feels like she’s performing in the room with you. Unlike the Liz Phairs or the Alanis Morrisettes of the world, Harvey isn’t explicitly baring her soul. In fact, Harvey is one of the most enigmatic artists out there, and after eight albums, it’s still unclear as to who PJ Harvey is. Perhaps that’s what makes PJ Harvey so exciting; each album is just a different shade of her personality. Her theatrical way of performing and her metaphor-filled lyrics make her more of a mystery and universal, and as a result give each listener a unique understanding of her songs.
Slint – Spiderland
Nick Cave and The Bad Seeds – The Boatman’s Call
Patti Smith – Horses