You can tell just by looking at the cover how PJ Harvey’s latest, Uh Huh Her, differs from her last album, Stories from the City, Stories from the Sea. The title’s letters are scrawled crudely over an out-of-focus Polaroid of the songstress, looking disgruntled whilst sitting in the passenger seat of a car. The raw portrait starkly contrasts the glamorous shot of Harvey on the cover of Stories. But the picture on Uh Huh Her says a lot more. She looks irritated and unsettled, as if there’s something she needs to get off her chest and she’s going to tell you whether you like it or not. And that’s why we like her.
PJ Harvey is the quintessential badass, telling it like it is without succumbing to the trappings of any alpha male’s idealized image of women. Harvey is sexual and expressive, but on her own damn terms. And if you cross her, she’ll most likely fuck you up. Just take a look at Uh Huh Her‘s “The Pocket Knife,” a song about concealing a blade underneath a wedding dress.
Uh Huh Her is Harvey’s sixth album, and a testament to her longevity as an artist. Thirteen years into her career, she’s evolved and grown as a songwriter without losing the edge that made earlier albums like Dry and Rid of Me so invigorating. But Her isn’t merely a carbon copy of those albums. Rather, it’s a continuation and exploration of ideas presented on all of her previous albums. There are gritty rock numbers (“The Life and Death of Mr. Badmouth,” “Cat on the Wall”), melancholy slow-burners (“The Slow Drug,” “You Come Through”) and stark acoustic ballads (“The Darker Days of Me and Him”).
Lyrically, Polly Jean is as poignant as ever. The bitter chanteuse on the cover comes through on songs like “The Pocket Knife” and “Who the Fuck?,” in which she boldly asks, “who the fuck/d’you think you are?” The first single, “The Letter,” also stands out, a sensual tale of letter writing that results in the best ode to long-distance longing since The Pixies’ “Cactus.”
Though PJ Harvey’s music evolves in subtle ways, no two albums sound alike. Dry was raw and simple, To Bring You My Love was powerful and soulful, Stories from the City was sleek and polished. And now, on Uh Huh Her, the British songwriter has succeeded in making an album that best summarizes all her work to date, while opening a new chapter in her artistic career.
The crude album art and rougher sounds on Uh Huh Her may seem like a step backward for Harvey. But take a second listen. No matter how loud or abrasive, you’ll be surprised at how mature Uh Huh Her really is.
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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.