Chunky guitars, dark narratives and plenty of feminine attitude, PJ Harvey’s music has drawn us out of our safe place and into her dark imagination for over two decades. The British artist’s legions of fans worldwide, prestigious accolades (including an MBE), lengthy career and prolific output speak volumes, but the real Polly Jean Harvey is best defined by her music alone.
Those lucky enough to be heading to Field Day this summer will get all of that grit, grunt and grace live in the flesh, and for those of you sitting on the fence, here are six stellar reasons to get yourself down to see this rock and roll legend.
That slow, strutting, opening riff is one of Harvey’s most iconic. The title track from the first album that thrust her into the global stage, Harvey’s voice scrapes the bottom of her register with all the fierceness of a passionate lover. Everyone’s favourite antihero Courtney Love recently covered this song in a live show which went viral; critics are divided but I think the only one who can pull this off is our Polly Jean.
Harvey turns to whimsical folk style to recount the tragic story of the ill-fated battle of Gallipoli in 1915, the music deliberately lighter than the heavy lyrics. Nature descriptions feature as we hear the full range of Harvey’s voice, hitting a piercing, ghostly register to tell the tale of fallen heroes.
Grinding, menacing keys and bass set the tone for the song of love gone horribly wrong with all the grunt that we love to hear from the slight songstress. Her voice juxtaposed perfectly with the intermittent, menacing riff, representing a frightening stalker on the tail of ‘Elise’. There might be murder. It’s just that kind of song.
Who but Thom Yorke could match her twisted creative mind? The two voices float across each other as two ships passing whilst a steady guitar riff chugs along like the inexorable march of time. From the album that bagged Harvey the 2001 Mercury Prize, the tune is a tale of fleeting love in the beautiful mess that is New York City.
One of Harvey’s most well known tunes, it’s also one of her most controversial. Harvey is well known for creating characters and fictional stories for most of her compositions, and has stated in interviews the exasperation she felt at those who questioned if this morbid story of a mother drowning her child in the river was autobiographical. It’s not, for the record; just brilliantly perverse fiction.
Harvey forgoes her usual rock and roll swagger in favour of a haunting, slightly dizzying piano riff which trickles in circles until you feel ‘under ether’ yourself. Harvey’s voice also matches the piano register with an uncharacteristically high and feeble tone. One of her spookiest and most fragile characters yet.
By Jordan Rahlia