During an odd afternoon as a part time DJ at a community college radio station which I finally heard what a strained, angry woman sounds like. The radio station received its measly weekly mailings from our distributor and near the bottom of the small box was a copy of P.J. Harvey’s first album Dry. The disengaging cover grabbed my attention first: the smear of red lipstick across the bottom of a nose to the top of the chin. A vertical line, cutting through P.J.’s sneer. Sure, I had heard Pattie Smith and was a closet Pretender fan. I dug Sinead and thought other women rock stars were cool, but this was different. The inset informed us that this was the brightest sound of rock (NOTE: not women’s rock) coming from Britain in years. The insert also commanded us to play the new single “Sheela Na Gig” and check out her video on MTV’s “120 Minutes” in the coming weeks.
In pure community college fashion, I took the ad’s advice and cued “Sheela Na Gig”; without a preview; just a quick “What the hell?!” The quick light of the initial guitar riff and this rhythmic, hardened guitar and then:
I’ve been trying to show you over and over
Look at these my child-bearing hips
Look at these my ruby red ruby lips
Look at these my work strong arms and
You’ve got to see my bottle full of charm
I lay it all at your feet
You turn around and say back to me
After playing the song, quickly pawning the CD into my school bag and “borrowing” it for the night, I found a woman who screamed from a level of womanhood that only a few ever tried, but were, at best, given the “exhibitionist” label and quickly dismissed. P.J. Harvey demanded our utmost respect; not because she’s a woman, but because she sang and played on Dry at a level that very few at the beginning of the ‘90s even challenged. Only 22 at the release of the album, PJ challenged her listener at every turn of the record. The simplicity of PJ’s guitar riffs, basic rhythmic section, and mixed with Harvey’s voice created an album that I consider possibly the best album of the early 1990s.
Dry is an album that is unapologetic to the pains of prior generations of women. Dry is an up front accusation of men and women who propagate and survive because of a Patriarchy that Harvey deals with richly developed bombastic accusations that challenge not only men, but the women who gain from playing in the system. By the time the final track “Water” buzzes through the speakers, we’ve been indoctrinated into a world that very few artists have ever been successful at describing and criticizing. P.J. Harvey is a magnificent songwriter that borrows from the greats, but all the while creating a sound that has influenced all sorts of albums. Let’s face it Radiohead fans, Thom Yorke needed P.J. to be great and when you hear the desperation of Dry I believe you hear the sighs and moans and screams that are constant reminders that so much is borrowed from this woman’s musical career. Ironically, P.J. is the loudest and sharpest woman voice of her generation, but she never had to bust out a chorus of “Closer to Fine” on “Lilith Fair” for her credibility to ring as hard and determined as any in rock.
Dry begins with a sinister blend of bass riff and P.J.’s pleading line “O My Lover/Don’t you know it’s alright/You can love her/You can love me at the same time?” At once Harvey takes full command of the relationship she will have with her listener and her lover. A pardon for listening or loving anything beforehand because, quite frankly, it’s okay; all the while the collected session musicians plays a devilish and desperate number in the background. “Oh My Lover” introduces the listener to a world hell bent to avoid the apology and desperate for you to understand that P.J. Harvey is in complete control. By the time track 2 “O Stella” finishes, a tightly packaged band is in full form and P.J. Harvey has mastered a vocal range that demonstrates the raw power she will use as a foundation for her early career.
Highlights on Dry are endless and, quite frankly, there isn’t a weak track on the entire album. However, what P.J. will be known for in her career is her flexibility as a songwriter. P.J. demonstrates this in four numbers track 5 “Happy & Bleeding”, Plants & Rags”, “Fountain”, and the final track “Water”. The starkness of Harvey’s efforts are on display in these four tracks. However, a nod must be made to the track “Plants & Rags”; a mashing of Harvey’s acoustic guitar with the layered textures of string patterns that sound like a precursor to Billy Corgin’s future work with The Smashing Pumpkins; “Plants & Rags” shows a thoughtful and playful songwriter. If P.J. stuck to the hard edges of “Oh My Lover” and “Sheela Na Gig” there is little doubt that she would have succumbed to the death of many woman songwriters who play loud bombastic rock. Truth is, when P.J. appeared for the first time she was immediately paired with that songstress Liz Phair, but it’s the flexibility of Harvey’s work that separates her from the pack of ordinary rockers.
The last two tracks on Dry “Fountain” and “Water” play off the Feminist messages Harvey delivers with expertise, but it’s with playfulness that she calls upon the biblical allusions of “Hand in hand/He’s my big man/ Stays with me/ Some forty days/ No words/ Then goes away/ I cry again.” However, P.J.’s final shot is across the bow of manhood. She challenges the adventurous, hubris men of Christ and Icarus with the notion that these characters toy with a woman’s emotional stability, in this case Mary, with pleads that will eventually drawn her in water. When P.J. challenges her man to “Prove it to me”, she calls out from that same voice that led her listener off the album’s cliff; I can hear this as P.J.’s final strike. “Water” finishes with her request of Mary to hold on tight because P.J. isn’t a sucker; she’s walking on water.
Now the water to my ankles
Now the water to my knees
Think of him all waxy wings
Melted down into the sea
Mary Mary what your man said
Washing it all over my head
Mary Mary hold on tightly
Under the sea
P.J. Harvey calls upon her past to challenge their position in history and not to be satisfied with the bit parts in the script. Dry functions on these ironic placements. From the ironic conception of the cover and the misplaced lipstick to the lyrical and musical output within, the album excels on a level few have reached. It is with this irony that P.J. Harvey’s Dry is successful and will live on as a great masterpiece in rock and roll history. The great thing is that this was the beginning of a career leading Harvey to great musical experiments. What was promised on an album like Dry has been furthered throughout P.J. Harvey’s career.