The fact she contemplated it being her last record before she even began explains why her music feels like she’s squeezing your tacks and not letting go—she’d outrock anyone. Polly wants a man but won’t be overawed by the masculine paradigm she’s inhabiting. But in her cautious androgyny she’d love to be spoken for—”Come on, boys, let’s push it hard/Bump down, push your motor car”, “Oh, my lover/Why don’t you just say my name?” There’s ambiguity—not sexual ambiguity but relationship ambiguity wherein she longs for the man, the woman, the carer, the giver; then wouldn’t bat an eyelid. It’s alluringly equivocal alongside the references of dresses and “shiny things”. But whatever the context may be in relation to these references, it still doesn’t in any way contradict her message of being the stubbornly-independent yet yearning-for-companionship twenty-something.
Rid of Me (1993)
When I first heard this record I originally thought Nirvana—lo and behold, producer Steve Albini, Cobain’s future swansong regisseur. Harvey loves integrating the female into all this but her tough “I-won’t-let-a-man-dominate-me-but-I-want-to-be-dominated” persona leaves you pondering over what she’s looking for. Probably someone who can stand up to her merciless sexual desires, whether she’s taking it or giving it: “Lick my legs, I’m on fire!”, “Sweet babe, let me stroke it”, “I’m sucking ’til I’m white”. All told, this is a record that never quite did it for me. Driven off acquiescing-to-the-man feminism and a less-than-semi-autobiography, whatever she had in mind was ravaged by the murky production, particularly the first half. She had more to say than the engineering would allow. But the subject matter is so hardcore-pornographic, Albini’s intervention may be a godsend. Maybe…
To Bring You My Love (1995)
She’s relinquished the dirty details and is now on the path to freedom via vulnerability and an oxymoronic extrovert inwardness. Unlike the past couple of album covers which reveal tigerish and raunchy imagery this excludes the lascivious symbolism and delves into longing for salvation and waiting for a saviour.
It’s gorgeously yearning and weak, but not easily exploited, because she still doesn’t want that, but she knows she has to soften up a little, just a little. Leading on from her previous endeavours, the record starts out quite forceful, vocally and musically, but gradually fills with succumbing to the male counterpart with a sense of even finding her soulmate, not just a lover – “C’mon Billy/You’re the only one/Don’t you think it’s time now/You met your only son?”, “Let me ride/Let me ride/Just let me ride on his grace for a while”.
“I’m just working for the man”, that’s God. Is her salvation through religion? There’s a distinct feeling throughout of losing hope – “Tomorrow might never come”, “Teclo your death/Will send me to my grave” – and locating that saviour in the man above – “Oh help me Jesus/Come through the storm”, “I’m begging Jesus please/Send his love to me”.
Is This Desire? (1998)
Her pondering for whatever she’s pondering for has me pondering is she pondering over what she can’t have? Girls and women in the song titles, but she hasn’t neglected the man, she’s still trying, just.
Harvey’s experimental capriciousness lyrically and musically is seduction personified. Receiving flak from numerous fans for its occasional electronic sonority it’s ironic that her most lyrically female-oriented album thus far seduces the male that she’s been somewhat berating all along. Her transition from the demonic banshee (“The Sky Lit Up”) to the sexy minx (“The Wind”) keeps you on your toes.
Her short-lived relationship with Nick Cave could be the catalyst for an erratic record of haywire proportions but these schizophrenic concoctions are guerrilla warfare-like; it hits you, then it climaxes and is normally followed by a serene rendition like the mesmerising “Catherine”. When I want to chastise a track, I’m hit by a glint of virtuoso piano or a shaft of lyrical and vocal light – “Siren rising across the sky”, “And there was trouble taking place”, “Leave your pain in the river/To be washed away slow”.
Stories From the City, Stories From the Sea (2000)
A vulnerable immortality right off the bat; insecure, she needs a gun, the world’s crazy. She’s on the move through the city before the sun sets over her, and the vital thing is, it’s her city. Harvey’s fashion has varied through her illustrious career and it’s moved to a city-slicker, constantly mobile and looking towards the destination she envisions for herself. Has she made it? It sounds like it.
Talk to her, she’s ready, she can take it – “Speak to us, send us a sign/Tell us something to keep us trying”, “Speak to me of heroin and speed/Of genocide and suicide, of syphilis and greed”. Unlike the youthful befuddlement of Dry, there’s direction to her forcefulness wherein she’s vigorously telling us what’s wrong and staring it down rather than foppishly wishing for a solution to fall upon her lap.
This record is quintessentially Harvey, possesses everything in her mercurial missile as of now and it’s positive – immortality in companionship, fortune, pulling herself clear, taking life as it comes, let the man come to her.
Uh Huh Her (2004)
Now we haven’t experienced a metamorphosis from sheer positive drive to a melancholy disposition as of yet, and I’m wondering what’s happened to our Polly.
The lo-fi early ’90s alternative rock soiree has me pleading for the produced polished precision in the likes of Stories and To Bring You My Love. If she wanted this to work a blend was needed, almost as if the lo-fi production was matched with the second half of Rid of Me. Let’s take “Cat On the Wall”; a Velvets-like track that you could easily imagine Reed, Cale or even Nico swaddling their lips around. If the album had some of this, more pace and vitality injected into its lucid woe it would be more purposeful and possess less of the monotonous depressive drone.
“Who the Fuck?” – what the fuck? “It’s You” – no it’s not. “Seagulls” – …
White Chalk (2007)
An album consisting of only one song is courageous and props must be awarded for her sheer… there are eleven songs…
“British folk” apparently, the morose convulsions revolving around murder, violence, nature and love are pretty ghastly and sickly, which is the point, we hope. Her disdain towards the long-established three-piece rock group is heedless; it’s hurried and possesses a severe lack of consideration towards her listener. Changing it up is great but a gradual revamp is required with less obstreperous, shadowy apparitions and pained vocals.
She’s taken up the piano from scratch, great, but I want some electric guitar, just once. The dark, ghostly gloom is all good, there’re no worries there, but barely anything in this record hits you in the solar plexus like previously and it just glides over you without any consternation, which I think she was attempting to exude. “I freed myself from my family/I freed myself from work/I freed myself/I freed myself/And remained alone” – I’ll absolutely take that one with me, however.
Let England Shake (2011)
I had to double, triple, quadruple check that I wasn’t laying my ears on a Björk record. It’s Professor Polly J. Harvey of History at the University of Life.
This album has our heroine as the angelic cherub portraying the cruel exertions of warfare during World War I (“… a hateful feeling still lingers, even now, 80 years later”) acting as a 21st-century contemporary hippie-type in her arresting white frock. A cataclysmic divide between this and White Chalk is the demonic chamber-like fanaticism of the previous “folk” effort are renounced and a medieval-like flair is added through an autoharp and zither. Thankfully she throws in what she knows, guitar, and it’s welcomed among the celestial imagery she’s flinging at us.
It’s very difficult to transition your love of her genius and gifted plethora of virtuoso instrumentation when she goes from the cerebral rocker to heavenly saint but if you give it a chance you’ll get there. “What is the glorious fruit of our land?/It’s fruit is deformed children”, “What if I take my problems to the United Nations?”, “So our young men, hid with guns, in the dirt/And in the dark places”.
The Hope Six Demolition Project (2016)
She doesn’t like the idea of extra Walmarts. Does anyone? Reporting from across the world of perceived ravaged poverty, Harvey decides to add some righteous reporting to the land of music.
This didn’t have the same jingle-jangle like its predecessor and no real hook to speak of, besides that of “The Wheel”, a tale of her travels to Kosovo and a fairground wheel. The entirety of this album ducked and dived any kind of angry streak which the content would naturally lend itself to; it was too nice. Let England Shake was held up by sardonic jabs and ghastly imagery. This whirled and weaved its way through with little malicious intent.
If she thinks this’ll change any minds in terms of societal well-being she has another thing coming. But I will always acknowledge how impressive she is in terms of songcraft and knowing where she stands in her art, even if this overstepped the boundary of music and politics that bit too much.