I am a big fan of the musical repertoire of the inimitable Polly Jean Harvey, especially her earlier work. Although P.J. Harvey continues to create interesting musical offerings to this day, it was and continues to be her albums of the 1990s that especially pique my interest, impress, and impassion me. Her first album, ‘Dry’ hit the scene in 1992 and was swiftly followed up by the rocking ‘Rid of Me’ the next year. ‘4-Track Demos’, also released in 1993, culled tracks from both preceding albums, offered up in rawer versions. Then ‘To Bring You My Love’ was birthed in 1995 with a searing, melodramatic, almost operatic glory.
Although these different 1990s P.J. Harvey albums each have their own style, one unifying factor is an unapologetic female sexuality-sometimes painfully yearning, sometimes lusty, sometimes angry, and sometimes burning with an almost crazed frothing at the mouth that threatens to culminate in some kind of a violent sexual frenzy. This is one aspect of P.J. Harvey’s music that very much appeals to and strongly resonates for me, in part due to its passion and in part due to its departure from certain more typically conceived feminine constraints.
The first P.J. Harvey song I remember hearing was ‘Sheela-Na-Gig’ (from ‘Dry’), which drew me in due to the singer’s voice, vocal delivery, and lyrics. I initially noticed and liked how Harvey creatively co-opted the phrase ‘gonna wash that man right outta my hair’ (from the old musical ‘South Pacific’ and then later used in a hair dye commercial and now re-purposed again in a rock & roll song) and made it her own with the unique way she vocalized the phrase. A closer listen to the rest of the song’s lyrics presented a provocatively aggressive perspective on female sexuality, which was only compounded when I found out what a sheela-na-gig actually is-a figurative carving of a naked woman displaying an exaggerated vulva. I was definitely intrigued by P.J. Harvey’s in-your-face presentation of female lust.
I admire a singer who employs her voice as a versatile instrument-who is in possession of a flexible vocal range, who can sound dissonant as well as melodic, and who is not afraid to sound ugly as well as pretty if it better suits the mood of a song. 1990s P.J. Harvey certainly fits such a description, alternating unexpectedly between varied vocal registers, wailing like a banshee, shrieking plaintively, moaning & groaning, growling menacingly, and using her voice in other excitingly acrobatic maneuvers. She can sound childlike and innocent one minute and like a sexually voracious and strangely threatening beast in her next breath. Through such vocal flexibility and willingness to experiment, she is able to harness the power of her own lyrics and physical voice to twist feminine conventions, warp fairy tale clichés, and cast herself as woman as a force to be reckoned with.
In her 1990s albums, PJ Harvey applies her own furious twist and delivers her own whirlwind female energy to the Biblical tale of Samson & Delilah ( in the song ‘Hair’ from ‘Dry’), to the fairy tale of Snow White (in the song ‘Hardly Wait’ from ‘4-Track Demos’) and to the Jane character in the Tarzan tale (usually viewed as passive and submissive, but given her own voice in Harvey’s song ‘Me-Jane’ from ‘Rid of Me’), as just a few of many examples. The ‘Dry’ album serves as an exciting introduction to Harvey’s vocal prowess, emotional capacity, and potentially searing sensibilities. The ‘Rid of Me album presents her most furiously violent content (in the form of songs like ‘Rid of Me’, ‘Legs’, ‘Hook’, ‘Man-Size’, ’50 ft. Queenie’ and ‘Snake’ ). Her voice is at its most raw, elastic and uncontained in many of the songs on the ‘4-Track Demos’, which at moments seems titillatingly vulnerable and at other moments feels akin to performance art.
‘To Bring You My Love’ takes a different turn in that P.J. Harvey’s lyrics veer away from her prior incarnation of in-your-face-sexual rage into a somewhat more obtuse and subdued lyrical terrain, but her vocal delivery is still very powerful and resonates with a melodramatic timbre and an almost operatic tone that approaches the theatrical. This theatrical tone was also conveyed by P.J. Harvey’s appearance during the live shows in support of this album, in which her flamboyant costuming and over the top stage makeup prevailed, almost as if she was trying to draw attention to the unnaturalness and artifice of female beautification and glamour by over exaggerating it to the point she looked as if she was in drag.
Due to her topsy turvy twisting of feminine conventions and unapologetic presentation of powerful female sexuality, some listeners might perceive and interpret P.J. Harvey’s content as feminist. Although Harvey does not personally identify as a feminist artist, it is hard to deny the powerful female energy espoused by her 1990s albums. Whether or not P.J. Harvey self-identifies as a feminist, I personally find much of her 1990s era musical material to be empowering to me as a female. Furthermore, I appreciate the fact that this sense of empowerment is not mutually exclusive from sexiness. Harvey has her own evolving edgy style and her own kind of smoldering sexiness. Her style may not be not for everyone, but for me it presents a welcome reminder that a woman does not have to fit a certain mold. She can be many things simultaneously. She can be creative AND sexy AND powerful AND provocative AND contradictory AND potentially dangerous.
Experience the power of P.J. Harvey for yourself by partaking of one of her albums-
At CD Universe: