When PJ Harvey arrived in the 90s, there wasn’t much female-led, blues-influenced alternative rock around. In a way, a lot of music fans and musicians had been waiting for her at that time. Back then – when being exposed to new music was very much down to a bigger label signing a cool band and putting money into their exposure – Harvey was a blessing for all us women writing and playing music.
But our drummer, Budi, is even a bigger fan than me – Harvey's music has influenced his playing just as much as it did my own coming of age as a musician.
The rawness of her first two records, collected on the revealing 4-Track Demos, give an excellent glance into her songwriting and put a fat, consoling plaster on the wounds the 80s left on our musical souls: don’t use any musical glitter, no unnecessary sounds. Put the song first. If the song can’t survive a simple setting with no gadgetry, then it's not worth keeping. That’s what we learned from Harvey's first records.
I admired her poetry and guitar playing. To me, her guitar had something old-fashioned; the riffs and licks she played reminded me of Howlin’ Wolf, Robert Johnson, The Rolling Stones. Her voice was so young, yet she resolutely refused to sound ‘nice’.
I guess that (and her look back then) is why she was compared to Patti Smith so much, the fact that she didn’t seem eager to please and she made it all about her work – the story and the song.
I was 17 when I first discovered her, and she came as a relief to me, as I understood through her that I didn't have to commit to the common male perspective of what the role of a 'girl in a band' should be, but at the same time, I didn’t have to join an open fight against machoism in music, like Bikini Kill and the likes.
Her music is hauntingly beautiful and there’s treasures to find on every record she made. Here are 10 of her best.
Dress (Dry, 1992)
The 'fun' song on Dry. Beautifully sung, and what a drive from the drums – plus Budi's favourite guitar solo ever. This song seems to be an answer to all those male songs, written from the 30s until the 90s, about ‘the beautiful girl, the 'status symbol'. The music is intricate and plays with the common rock expectations. It made me think of the preposterous importance of American prom-night dresses when I heard it for the first time.
Man-Size Sextet (Rid Of Me, 1993)
Captain Beefheart meets Goddard Lieberson. Lyrically, Harvey takes those male stereotypes and turns them around. There’s a strong inkling of insanity on how being a man ‘gets to her head’. The strings are so beautifully arranged – and how cool was it to see Rob Ellis conducting the sextet wearing his drum gloves in the film Reeling? I haven’t heard a similar string section anywhere else in rock music.
Water (Dry, 1992)
Water (and Victory) are musically so exceptional and outstanding that they still have a strong force – they were almost post-rock long before the term was born. Dynamically, they're very lively. I understand the lyrics of Water in the way that, by challenging God on his words, she drowns in the sea. Victory contains one of most beautiful lyrics I've ever heard: ‘I’m on my hill; I wait for wind’.
Taut (Dance Hall At Louse Point, 1996)
A wonderful wall of noise to create a matching background of emotions for the haunting, hastily-spoken lyrics. It all breaks open for the chorus: ‘Jesus, save me’.
It sounds like clouds opening for a ray of light, with the creepy 'Even the son of god had to die, my darling'. I always imagine PJ Harvey and John Parish having tons of fun during the recording of Taut.
That Was My Veil (Dance Hall At Louse Point, 1996)
After her hit record and the wonderful 4-Track Demos, I was afraid Harvey would go commercial. 1995's To Bring You My Love had some drum sounds which sounded too artificial for my taste, though it was still a great album. And then comes Dance Hall… – a 180 degree turn in sounds, songs and especially her voice. She sounds her most natural on this record. Where she'd so far played with her voice mostly to reincarnate the characters and moods of her lyrics, on this album she sounds more gentle, fragile, intimate; almost girlish.
...Veil is stripped back, played by only an acoustic guitar and her very clear, unaffected voice, in a straight forward ballad with a very touching end. Budi's favourite line from Dance Hall... is ‘Words can’t save lives’ from the song Civil War Correspondent.
Harder (B-Sides 1995 – 2001)
To me, Harder is the essence of all the characters on To Bring You My Love. They all seem to suffer through love in their own way, most of them quite on the edge. Harder was a B-Side, and has Harvey's To Bring You My Love voice in exaggeration. The song is very fun and seems to be about a woman demanding a lot of sexual attention.
April (A Woman A Man Walked By, 2009)
A true gem on John Parish and PJ Harvey's latest record. It's so haunting and touching, with the classic Harvey/Parish setting – organ and slow drums.
I figure it’s written from the perspective of an old woman coming to terms with her ageing. When Harvey moves from that old woman's voice into 'I dream, that I’m walking, that I’m watching,' it leaves me flabbergasted every time I hear the song.
When Under Ether (White Chalk, 2007)
I guess it takes a brilliant songwriter like PJ Harvey to write a very beautiful, non-cringey and non-judgemental song about abortion. She takes this difficult and much-debated issue and gives a voice to a woman undergoing the procedure. White Chalk is Harvey's piano album, and I saw her playing solo in Berlin promoting it. It was very exciting, as I had never seen her live before and she was fantastic.
A Perfect Day Elise (Is This Desire?, 1998)
Is This Desire is a fantastic album, and many people were surprised by Harvey's first solo work since To Bring You My Love. She sounded shy and her voice wasn’t as manic as it appeared on her preceding album. I love the tenderness of her voice and the very carefully arranged songs. She could have ridden the wave of her commercial success and spat out another heavy album like To Bring You My Love, but she chose a different, more interesting and risky route. A Perfect Day Elise has beautiful, heavy drums, and Harvey's voice is so sad yet sweet.
50ft Queenie (Rid Of Me, 1993)
This is the song I play to people who haven’t heard PJ Harvey before (or claim they don’t like her music, or think she is too serious). The guitar is a mix of classic R&B and 90s rock. Harvey's character's ego is exploding in front of the listener – she boasts and swells into the 50ft Queenie, reminiscent of the 50s B-Movie Attack Of The 50 Ft Woman.
Leisure Tank's new single, Higher, is out now via Goddamn Records. You can check out the video below.