PJ Harvey, 2011
Photo: Man Alive! | Wikimedia Commons | CC BY 2.0 [cropped]

PJ Harvey: Retrospectrum

PJ Harvey is an empowering female figure who rejects labels. In this retrospectrum, we explore the space in the music industry that is so singularly hers.

The shapeshifting Dorset-born PJ Harvey has never been easy to pin down. Like any exceptional artist, she is complex, even perhaps boldly contradictory. She represents many things with such an eclectic career, distinctive periods, and an inveterate tendency not to compromise. Yet, in one sense, her image is linear. All those versions of Harvey are just mutations of past selves into a higher level of authenticity—a seemingly unending amount of changes in an attempt to reach the ultimate self-expression.

With her hair in a dark, sleek bun, the cherubic-faced PJ Harvey broke through during the height of grunge and riot grrrl—a moment linked to birthing third-wave feminism—where Bikini Kill, Bratmobile, and Babes In Toyland yelled as much as sang over distorted guitars, grappled with their instruments as if in melee, struck chords like punches, strummed with barbarity, and coruscated with an incandescent rage found in their predecessors—the Slits, X-Ray Spex, and the Raincoats—and augmented it to boiling point. It was a revolutionary and significant period in music.

But it wasn’t PJ Harvey’s world, even if she co-existed at the same time. In a May 1993 interview with Ann Scanlon of the former magazine Vox, Harvey said: “It seems to be backtracking for women, just lumping them all together and calling them Riot Grrrls. I’d find it quite patronising to be called a Riot Grrrl if I was one of them, but they obviously don’t think so. I just feel uncomfortable with labels being put on me, which I don’t think I understand or know anything about.”

PJ Harvey’s youthful look at the time belied her depth and wisdom, power and experience—she had a voice that seemed to bellow fire as well as words. For the most part, Harvey’s first two albums—1992’s Dry and 1993’s Rid of Me—are raw, bellicose, and confronting. Perhaps inadvertently, she eviscerates the preconceptions of a female rock star. Moreover, she writes about issues affecting women without hemming and hawing, shying or flinching away. Indeed, it is perversely refreshing to hear “Rub ‘Til It Bleeds”, a song about rubbing a clitoris until it bleeds, an act that somewhat evokes the Swedish film director Ingmar Bergman’s 1972 drama, Cries and Whispers, where, in one scene, a character named Karin, stabs herself in the vagina with a shard of glass, then, shortly after, smears her face with the blood from the wound while gazing at her husband, Fredrik.

PJ Harvey’s “Rub ‘Til It Bleeds” could be an act of revenge, sadistic pleasure, or depriving the man of pleasure—perhaps the same man who appears a couple of tracks later in “Man-Size Sextet”, a supercilious lout, walking with a swagger, walking with her on his mind, so much so that, by the end, he sets her alight. He is acting out of feeling emasculated; the song’s subject does not worship at the altar of his manhood. However, Harvey never ascribed a gender to her work, let alone called herself a feminist. “I don’t even think of myself as being female half the time,” Harvey told Robert Sandall of The Sunday Times in 1993. “When I’m writing songs I never write with gender in mind. I write about people’s relationships to each other. I’m fascinated with things that might be considered repulsive or embarrassing. I like feeling unsettled, unsure.”

But with rough-hewn vocals and sexually explicit lyrics—stained with blood and lust, murder and vengeance, with music that is equally redoubtable and vindicative—Harvey weaves a narrative that, in that zeitgeist, is unimaginatively latched onto, simplified and codified, and does a disservice to her music. Therefore she is exalted to a female icon, not unlike the female religious icons that she is singing about. 

Oh My Lover”, the opening song on her debut album, 1992’s Dry, begins with a huge, thunderclap guitar chord, sounding as if the earth has split open as if it is a presentiment of another world. With a sonorous bass and a plinking electric guitar, “Oh My Lover” is a lament, a beating of a despairing heart wrangling with saints and demons as much as an absent lover—a lover who doubles as God. By the song’s end, Harvey elides a letter, and, instead, sings “ime”, as if she has no time to pronounce the extra letter.

In “O Stella”, PJ Harvey indirectly references “Stella Maris”, or “Our Lady, Star of the Sea”, an ancient title for the Virgin Mary. Also, a “gown” is mentioned, which ties in with the next song “Dress”, where the throbbing instrumentation moans—the braying double bass evokes the cellist Arthur Russell, or the viola of John Cale. While the vocals waver between lust and pain, flapping like a hem of a dress. There are further biblical references in “Victory”, including Deliah, whose story of betraying Samson is recounted in “Hair”.

The second single from Dry, “Sheela-Na-Gig” draws from Middle Ages figurative carvings known as Sheela na gig—naked women showing an exaggerated vulva found throughout Britain and Ireland—that are displayed on churches and castles either to ward off evil spirits or to depict female lust as sinful, depending on the interpretation. The man accuses the narrator of exhibitionism. However, in the context of the song, it reads more as prostitution, which links to Mary Magdalene, who, purportedly, was a prostitute and appears to be the heroine of Dry.

The anger, violence, and sexual rejection on the album are far from the whole picture—it is but a part of the music contained within a religious carapace. A direct reference to Magdalene, who washed Christ’s feet with her tears, is conjured up in the lyrics of “Joe”: “Come in close now, I’ll wash your feet / With my hair I’ll mop them dry”. At the end of “The Fountain”, the narrator, who seems to be Magdalene, reports of having been with him for 40 days—the period from resurrection to ascension—then, with no word from him, a.k.a. Christ, leaves, after his ascension has taken place. Then she is on a hill, presumably Calvary or Golgotha. While the narrator invokes Mary again in “The Water.”

In 2000, PJ Harvey said to MTV: “A lot of the songs on my first album are actually quite fun and happy, songs like Hair and Dress. They’ve all got tongue-in-cheek feel to them as well. I think often people read them as being angst-ridden, angry songs when… me, personally, I’m having quite a good time really. They got interpreted in different ways which is fine.” The erotica doubles as spiritual longing. Both are the same thing: the same desire, the same search for something beyond the quotidian, beyond the mundane, a heightened state, where suffering is assuaged. 

PJ Harvey’s music is indebted to the blues tradition and murder ballads. Like the lyrics Nick Cave was penning in the 1980s through to the mid-‘90s, there is a gallows humour to her songs’ violent and macabre imagery. The absurdity and the violence are so extreme and grim that it becomes laughable. Harvey grew up with the blues and is much as a blues shouter, and can deliver a hokum lyric when she wants.

“My mum was a big Bob Dylan fan, they’ve got lots of blues, Howlin’ Wolf, Beefheart, Canned Heat, John Lee Hooker, the Stones,” Harvey told Simon Reynolds of Melody Maker in 1993, a piece republished in the Guardian in 2014. On her third studio album, 1995’s To Bring You My Love, Harvey turns gothic, reeling through punk blues numbers, with the influence of Cave creeping into the instrumentation—particularly the enveloping organ—like a ghost. She has the attitude of a punk and the allurement of a femme fatale in a classic film noir whose presence could make any detective subservient, obsequious, and tongue-tied.

“Down by the Water” is a story of filicide. Saturated in reverb, “Down by the Water” could be Harvey’s “Red Right Hand” with its cross-stick drumming and pizzicato strings. But without the explosive chorus and bereft of the lyrical enigma—the mystery applied by the suffocating atmosphere alone. It ends with Harvey whispering, hushing the song to its end, to the final Brueghelian image: “Little fish, big fish, swimming in the water”—a spin on the Flemish proverb that the big fish always eats the little fish. Around this time, Harvey wore excessive make-up on stage: bold blue eyeshadow and a powered face—sublimely ugly.

With the metallic, almost translucent, electric guitar and a spectre organ that seems to hover, “The Dancer” has the narrator directly invoking God. The music seems to drift on its own without needing the singer to be there. Half-intoning and half-supplicating, Harvey delivers a prayer by a jilted lover. The sighs are seductive and soft, haunting and soothing.

There she is at the mercy of the cross—the same cross that Johnny Cash sang about in “The Old Rugged Cross” and heard in Van Morrison’s “See Me Through”—singing of a love that will stay until the river bed run dries. The song’s subject is not quite at the stage of the character in Bruce Springsteen’s “The River”, which, in turn, had Hank Williams’ suicidal ballad “Long Gone Lonesome Blues” washed up on its memory bank, where the river becomes dry representing the dwindling relationship. 

Traces of these songs are not to be found in “The Dancer”, but it is about the same topics: love, faith, and despair. The narrator in “The Dancer” searches for the visage of the true God. Nowhere. Without redemption, it is like a Flannery O’Connor short story. With redemption, it would still be like an O’Connor story. The character wants to wrap herself up in her lover’s arms—in a history that is desperate, sad, and dead.

The release of 1996’s “Henry Lee”, a descendent of the English-Scottish child ballad “Young Hunting”, found Harvey duetting with Cave. Around this time, the pair had a short-lived but intense love affair, which went on to inform the lyrics of both of their next albums: Cave’s 1997 The Boatman’s Call and Harvey’s fourth album 1998’s Is This Desire? It’s a departure from her first three albums; Harvey begins experimenting with instrumentation that is much more subtle and understated, as well as atmospheric and electronic, such as the reverb-laden “Joy” and “No Girl So Sweet”.

The first track, “Angelene”—with drums that seem less to play than to serve, a looming organ, and passive electric guitars that repeat the same, encircling melodic notes—would not seem out of place on Cave’s 1997 album, The Boatman’s Call. When the chorus arrives, a lift opens up the suppressed emotions in the preceding verse. Yet it is not an onslaught—more like a soothing balm. The song opens with the narrator’s self-introduction: “My first name Angelene”, Harvey sings convincingly, stepping inside of her character—a prostitute with green eyes, perhaps also a sly nod to Cave’s “Green Eyes”, a track about Harvey from the aforementioned The Boatman’s Call. For the rest of Is This Desire?, Harvey sings quietly, as if to herself, muttering a prayer, recalling a memory with God nowhere to be found.

 In 2000, PJ Harvey released her most accessible album to date, Stories from the City, Stories from the Sea. The second part of the title is neglected: critics purely focused on the first part and called it her “New York album”. Indeed, Harvey went to New York City to film for Hal Hartley’s 1998 film, The Book of Life, in which she appeared as Magdalena, a contemporary character based on none other than Mary Magdalene. During this time, she wrote songs, some of which ended up on the album. Furthermore, most of the tracks take place in New York City: a rooftop Manhattan, with skyscrapers, sweeping vistas, billboards, and bright lights, a milieu to the love story of two people running about in a city, day and night, sunrise and sunset, having a passionate relationship.

Stories from the City, Stories from the Sea is a concept album that follows these two characters from the hopeful beginnings of their new relationship to their break-up at the end of the record. In 1999, Harvey lived in New York City for nine months. However, as Harvey pointed out to Victoria Segal of Uncut in 2000, she also wrote songs that ended up on the album in London and Dorset. Regardless of its origins, Stories from the City, Stories from the Sea is another departure, another transformation. With lush strings and big melodies, it is, in part, a reaction to the abrasive and insular sounds of her prior two studio albums. There are earworm hooks and melodies that spiral and swirl, taking you by the hand like a lover.

“Big Exit”, the opening song, is about having thoughts of escaping at the start of a relationship due to a discouraging portent for what lies ahead—the inevitable break-up—which is why the character wants a pistol in her hand when being with her “baby”. The instrumentation is layered and colossal, with electric guitars that are springy. In the coda of the track, Harvey not so much sings as creates soothing grunts—similar to what she does at the end of each verse of “Good Fortune”. For three songs, Thom Yorke is on background vocals.

On Live Sets on Yahoo! Music in 2007, PJ Harvey spoke of the influence of working with Yorke: “Observing the very unusual, almost Eastern melodies that he would follow with his voice for harmonies taught me to open up my mind to harmony in a different way, which is coming out over the years. Ways of phrasing, and peculiar semitones, or even quartertones.” Like horses in mid-gallop, “Horses In My Dreams” is a reverie, a poetic vision, a Tarkovskian image. With a forlorn piano, weary strumming of an acoustic guitar, and light brushes on cymbals—minus synths—“Horses In My Dreams” evokes Cave’s 2016 song “Skeleton Tree”. The music slowly and gently rises, building to another world, a desired world of freedom and forgetfulness, after the break-up has happened.

The last track, “We Float”, begins with traces of trip-hop, a genre Harvey explores on Is This Desire?, while her style of singing in the choruses—the depth and the sadness, the sorrow and longing—would be emulated in the following decade by the New Jersey-born singer Sharon Van Etten. The lyrics acknowledge how the end of their relationship came about and how each will face the future without the other while begging the question of whether there is any chance of a possible reunion. Overall, the ex-lover becomes the phantom of the album—moving through the tracks, moving through her, until the day they are suspended and free. Either in love or in death.

PJ Harvey’s modus operandi is not to repeat herself. But in her view, she did just that on 2004’s Uh Huh Her. Talking to KCRW about the album in 2007, Harvey said: “I didn’t follow it through. I feel like there were a couple of songs on that record that were too atypically PJ Harvey, and weren’t new ground, and weren’t saying anything new that I hadn’t said before.” Producing the album herself, Harvey presents a distortive, guttersnipish bluesy world. There are rudimentary and brutal drums, with guitars tuned low. Harvey told Australian magazine Tracks, “I was looking for distressed, debased sounds. So all of the guitars are either tuned so low that it’s hard to detect what notes they’re playing or they’re baritone guitars or they’re played through the shittiest amps I could find.”

There are also three acoustic guitar-led ballads on Uh Huh Her. On one of them, “The Desperate Kingdom of Love” – a tune that has been suggested is about the passing of Harvey’s grandmother – the guitarist caresses the strings, creating a rhythm as soft as a murmuring of a heartbeat, which underpins Harvey’s tremulous vocals. Harvey was looking after her moribund grandmother during the writing of the album. “That song was written before she died but it was recorded after she died, the vocal,” Harvey told Rolling Stone Australia in 2004. “So I think having the experience of watching somebody die deepened my ability to convey an emotion I’m sure that is in there. That song wasn’t written about that, although it could very equally be applied and when I listen to it I do associate with that very tender place inside of me that comes from something like that. The Desperate Kingdom of Love is sung in probably the most intimate, tender way I’ve ever sung a song.”

 If PJ Harvey feels she hadn’t broken new ground with Uh Huh Her, then she does a one-eighty on 2007’s White Chalk, an album of sparse, quiet, piano-led compositions, where the notes seem to disappear between the fingers of the pianist and remerge curling like candle-lit smoke. Taking on the persona of a Victorian ghost, Harvey sets quasi-Gothic fairy tales to soporific lullabies. For the album, she learnt to play an autoharp she purchased—around 1995—at a thrift store in Notting Hill Gate, where she bumped into Brian Eno, who was buying foot pedals. The instrument would become a key element to the album.

Vocally, she sings in a higher register than her usual contralto; it is restrained and circumspect, often punctured by whirling falsettos and demonic howls. There is something eerily otherworldly and entirely inimitable about White Chalk, as if the whole thing could crumble at any given moment, a metaphor of life and death, a liminal space between worlds, where neither one seems to offer salvation or damnation.

Like Patti Smith, PJ Harvey is an empowering female figure who rejects labels. Harvey only began listening to Smith when people drew comparisons between the two artists. If Harvey is reluctant to cite Smith as an influence, then that is perhaps because she is keen to carve out an identity for herself—and, on a superficial level, the comparison is an oversimplification and pigeonholes Harvey. Music journalists saw the potent force of a poetic female singer and drew a comparison to another without thinking it through. In a different context, this is similar to how, in the early ’70s, critics attached “the new Dylan” tag to any fledgling, poetic singer-songwriter.

As time passes, PJ Harvey appears to be comfortable speaking about Smith and lists her as an influence numerous times. In a 2011 interview with Caspar Llewellyn Smith of the Guardian, Harvey said: “Patti Smith, whenever she’s performing, I want to see her because she is so energising to see and so passionate with what she’s doing and so wonderfully vocal and eloquent. I, again, you know she’s somebody that I think will just continue to cut her path and to go after what she believes in until she drops and that’s inspiring.”

Not unlike Smith’s 1978 album Easter, PJ Harvey, on the cover of 1993’s 4-Track Demos, an album comprising demos of released and unreleased songs, is shown posing with an unshaven armpit. In a 2009 interview with Amy Raphael of the Guardian, Harvey said, after discovering Smith, “I thought I’d better listen to her at that point. I discovered Easter in my parents’ record collection – I didn’t even know it was there. I’ve met her a few times since and she’s a charismatic, wonderful person to be around.”

Whereas Smith was poète maudit from the start, PJ Harvey did not get into poetry until 2008, when she started writing songs that would become 2011’s Let England Shake, a collection of songs partly based on soldiers’ experiences in the First World War. She takes inspiration from poets of the era: Wilfred Owen and Robert Graves. Furthermore, as inspiration when writing the lyrics for the album, Harvey tacks on her wall the composer and lyricist Stephen Sondheim’s “There’s Something About a War” from the musical 1962 A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum. She aims to write without being dogmatic and sententious, leaving it to the listener to decide what they feel.

Also, this was the first time she wrote lyrics ahead of the music. In retrospect, Let England Shake is a turning point, a demarcation line in her career, where she sheds her skin—like a snake—as a singer-songwriter and finds a poet beneath. Words start to take on further significance for Harvey, who, early on, seemed reluctant about her lyrics. It wasn’t until her fourth album, Is This Desire?, that she first provided lyrics printed in the liner notes. Moreover, of late, she has stated that she believes lyric writing and poetry are two separate disciplines. In an interview with the poet Paul Muldoon in 2017, she said her first poetry collection—2015‘s The Hollow of The Hand—leaned towards lyric writing, a book in collaboration with photographer Seamus Murphy, that would work as a sort of introduction to her 2016’s album, The Hope Six Demolition Project

What makes Let England Shake interesting is that PJ Harvey is drawn to write about England, which is something different. It marks Harvey’s first political record. She won her second Mercury Prize—the first for Stories from the City, Stories from the Sea—making her the only artist to have won the award twice. Five years later, The Hope Six Demolition Project was criticised for the very thing Harvey aimed not to do on Let England Shake: pontification. However, that is exactly Let England Shake‘s point—it is meant to be journalistic, not lyrical or poetic. Writing in a vernacular of the everyday. Facts are presented without any ornamentation. Like the songs of the protest singer Phil Ochs, it is effective reportage, and it continues with the war themes of Let England Shake.

Travelling to Kosovo, Afghanistan, and Washington, D.C, with Murphy, Harvey noted down what she saw. The songs highlight the discrepancies between countries and their similarities. Many decisions in the United States affected the countries she visited, as Harvey explained to Andrew Marr in 2016. The album’s title is a reference to HOPE VI, a program of the United States Department of Housing and Urban Development intended to revitalise the worst public housing projects in the United States into mixed-income developments. However, it has faced criticism, as it threatens to displace its most vulnerable residents and dilute the cultural legacy of historically Black communities like Anacostia, south of the river, a poor neighbourhood in Washington, D.C., where Harvey spent a lot of time.

By nature, PJ Harvey is private and reserved. She tours in support of her latest album, participates in a small number of interviews, and then quietly withdraws from the public eye until her next project. Therefore, Harvey’s ambivalence about being seen is not best represented by how she recorded the sessions for The Hope Six Demolition Project. It was performed in front of a live audience—whom she and the band could not see—as they watched through the one-way glass of a recording studio at Somerset House in London. 

Recently, PJ Harvey released a new concert film as part of the ARTE Concert series. Shot at the L’ Olympia in Paris in October 2023, Harvey performs her latest and tenth studio album, I Inside the Old Year Dying, released in 2023. To begin a concert by playing a new album in its entirety is not a statement; it is a swaggering confidence—a radical move that few artists would dare to think of, let alone pull off with such charming nonchalance. But Harvey’s new material is worthy of it and deserves to be heard (and seen) as a whole, as it is a conceptual piece of art.

I Inside the Old Year Dying is an outgrowth of 2022’s Orlam, a coming-of-age epic poem written in the Dorset dialect journeying the adventures of the nine-year-old protagonist, Ira-Abel Rawles. The subtlety of it is augmented by Harvey delivering a concert with theatrical panache. Although helped by the stage production, the highly choreographed show is minimally played out by Harvey, who, wearing a white dress, moves nimbly across the stage, embodying the songs with a childlike wonder. It is a fantastical journey through childhood, or, rather, a child’s imagination, where we enter into a world of forest glades, gnarled trees, and rutted fields, with references to Elvis Presley and the Bible.

The story’s backdrop seems to draw parallels with PJ Harvey’s childhood in Dorset, where she was the only girl in a small village, a tomboy with cropped hair who spent the first 14 years of her life wishing she was a boy. If the lyrics are tangible, the music is ethereal—looping and building, with synths and brushed snare fills, faint acoustic guitars, and rustling of bass, all of which underpins Harvey’s haunting vocals. One point of comparison within her oeuvre is White Chalk due to its delicacy—songs that appear insubstantial, as if imagined, as if unreal. The music co-exists in the same world as Cave’s latest offerings. With its ululating, drone-like synths—drifting along with Harvey’s infectious “Doo-doo-doo”—the opening number “Prayer at the Gate” brings to mind his 2016 song, “Jesus Alone”.

After performing the album, PJ Harvey delivers a retrospective set. First, three songs from Let England Shake, which, with its pastoral imagery, works almost as a companion piece to Harvey’s latest offering. The first track is performed solely by the band: John Parish (guitar), Jean-Marc Butty (drums), James Johnston (keyboards & violin), and Giovanni Ferrario (bass). Lined together in their muted, earthy tone-coloured clothing, Harvey’s stalwart collaborator Parish takes lead vocals while strumming chords to “The Colour of the Earth”. When Harvey returns to the stage, they strike into the aptly named “The Glorious Land”, a call-and-response number bolstered by a pre-recorded bugle and skittery guitar lines. Then it is straight into the quasi-spiritual “The Words That Maketh Murder”—a song that Patti Smith said makes her “happy to exist” to Aida Edemariam of The Guardian in 2011—where Harvey’s gossamer-thin vocals float over a military-esque percussive beat.

PJ Harvey has carved out a space in the music industry that is singularly hers. With each album comes a new persona, like Bob Dylan, a hero of hers, whose influence can be heard in her only solo performance on an acoustic guitar of the night: “The Desperate Kingdom of Love”, not to mention her onstage reticence. When she straps on an electric guitar, wearing her dress, she immediately evokes the blues artists of the past, Memphis Minnie and Sister Rosetta Tharpe, as well as her white dress on the cover of White Chalk. And before long, there are visceral and primal versions of “Man-Size” and “Dress”.

Four songs are played from To Bring You My Love, including “C’mon Billy”, where she moans and shakes a tambourine as if possessed, with the sorrow of the abandoned. For the title track, the spotlight is on Parish for the opening resonant guitar intro; this is until the instrumentation gradually swells, taking listeners under like a wave. Then comes the admission of “I’ve laid with the devil”, where Harvey sings with those fiendish and otherworldly vocals that you think she must have been to hell and back. Or to the crossroads in Clarksdale, Mississippi.

With the start of I Inside the Old Year Dying about childhood, the mortality-laden “White Chalk”—punctured by an elegiac harmonica—completes the crumbling circle, a love letter back to Dorset. At the end of the film, you wonder where PJ Harvey is headed next. Wherever it will be, it will be somewhere new. 

Works Cited

Edemariam, Aida. “The Saturday interview: Patti Smith“. The Guardian. 22 January 2011.

Harcourt, Nic. KCRW’s Morning Becomes Eclectic. YouTube. 14 October 2007.

Marr, Andrew. The Andrew Marr Show. YouTube. 20 May 2016.

Muldoon, Paul. “Paul Muldoon in conversation with PJ Harvey”. Vimeo. 2017.

PJ Harvey Interview Q&A”. Live Sets on Yahoo! Music. YouTube. 19 October 2007. 

PJ Harvey MTV2 Special (2000) [Part 1]”. MTV2 Special. YouTube. 2000.

Raphael, Amy. “Shy girl or she-wolf? Will the real Polly Harvey please stand up“. The Guardian. 7 March 2009.

Reynolds, Simon. “PJ Harvey: ‘I’m always looking for extremes“. The Guardian. 9 July 2014.

Sandall, Robert. “Just Like a Woman”. The Sunday Times. 2 May 1993. 

Scanlon, Ann. “Polly’s Pulling Power”. Vox: Issue 32. May 1993.

Segal, Victoria. “I’m just a raunchy sex queen. Is that what you wanted to hear?” Yes, frankly. Re-introducing PJ Harvey”. Uncut. 2000. 

Smith, Caspar Llewellyn. “I was just trying to survive”. Guardian Music. YouTube. 7 September 2011.

Watson, Ian. Rolling Stone Australia. May 2004.