In 1993, a trio of unstoppable women — Liz Phair, Björk and Polly Jean Harvey — took charge in changing the shape of alternative rock. Liz Phair did so with blunt, profane and vulnerable songwriting, delving into sexual narratives one moment and wishing she were 11 inches taller the next. Björk was an exotic and abstract curiosity, experimenting with electronics and mythological themes. But Polly Jean Harvey was clearly the most bad-ass of the three. Her 5-foot frame may not have made her look the most intimidating, but she was by far the loudest and most aggressive. She played at the boys’ table, and beat them at their own game.
In a sense, Rid of Me and Exile In Guyville are similar albums. Both deal with deeply personal, often sexual themes. But where Phair stuck to indie pop or folk to convey her poetry, Harvey strapped into an abrasive rock trio, named after herself, and let the distortion fly. Her vocals run a wide range between moans of agony, shrieks of insanity, fierce bellows and whispers, but very rarely are they diminutive or expected. This is, after all, the kind of lady who can hold her own with the likes of Queens of the Stone Age.
Following the urgent, punk-inspired rock of Dry, PJ Harvey’s sophomore release Rid of Me found Harvey, bassist Steve Vaughan and drummer Robert Ellis sounding more primal and brutal than ever. Part of this is thanks to Steve Albini’s engineering work—its abrasive, raw sound is akin to that of Surfer Rosa or At Action Park, and the leaps from quiet to loud are so staggering, the sheer force of volume is enough to cause permanent ear drum trauma. But Albini certainly doesn’t account for the unholy power behind these songs, which become seething, snarling beasts when fully provoked.
The leadoff title track is a blistering, vicious masterpiece, with Harvey playing the part of dangerous obsessive, uttering shrieks of “lick my legs, I’m on fire,” and “don’t you wish you never met her.” Harvey issues a darkly humorous take on religion in “Missed,” gives Billy Squier something to cry about in “Rub `Til It Bleeds,” does Dylan Beefheart-style on the brilliant cover of “Highway 61 Revisited,” and even goes avant garde in “Man Size Sextet.” That song’s companion piece, “Man-Size,” is one of the most abrasive tracks, despite being a single, though bigger hit “50 Ft. Queenie” is the centerpiece and runaway anthem, with Harvey offering an amusingly grandiose lyric, taunting with lines like “tell you my name/ F-U and C-K” and “you bend over/ Casanova.”
The most brutally honest moment on Rid of Me is “Dry,” unsurprisingly a holdover from her previous album, also titled Dry. Originally recorded solo, the version on Rid of Me is the second of its kind, a beefed up version with the sexually frustrated refrain “you leave me dry.” Harvey does extend a finger to the overly masculine in “Me Jane,” singing “Tarzan, I’m pleading, won’t you stop your fucking screaming!” Unlike Björk, who opted for dance beats and a more futuristic sound, or Liz Phair, whose debut a friend of mine said every girl he knew in college owned, Polly Jean Harvey offers no easy entry point, no easy definition or label. This isn’t so much an album defined by a woman as it is by a fearless human being. Nothing is off limits, radio friendliness isn’t a factor, and above all, it’s a gut-wrenching work of art, as menacing and peerless now as it was in 1993.
Jeff Terich is the founder and editor of Treble. He's been writing about music for 20 years and has been published at American Songwriter, Bandcamp Daily, Reverb, Spin, Stereogum, uDiscoverMusic, VinylMePlease and some others that he's forgetting right now. He's still not tired of it.