The album to start with
Stories from the City, Stories from the Sea (2000)
If you’ve previously cowered from the sublime Polly Jean, or if you just want to reconnect with her, start with her pop record, or, as she called it, “pop according to PJ Harvey, which is probably as un-pop as you can get to most people’s standards”. Stories came a decade into a career in which she’d swung between blues rock, gothic balladry and the anarchic spirit of punk, dressed up in her gorgeously deep, occasionally West Country-tinged, Americanised vocals. It was also a much more direct, immediate proposition of who she was, turning up the colour on her extraordinary palette of styles and emotions.
Stories is also one of the best albums ever made about the madness and intensity of new love. It is cinematic and high octane throughout. Big Exit begins proceedings like a lusty, full-throttle Bonnie and Clyde homage, Harvey’s character feeling immortal with her lover and desperate for a gun. Good Fortune is more tender, speaking of the erotic surrender that arrives when you’re falling for someone. Bad luck gets thrown off tall buildings. Little Italy and Chinatown glow behind love-fuelled hangovers. Harvey’s protagonist becomes a bird of paradise. The lovely production takes us there with her, our hearts full in our mouths.
It’s also a record where a woman is articulating her sexual hunger without apology. We’re given characters on rooftops, in bed, on the bed, telling us how immediate these feelings feel. The first line of This Is Love sums it all up: “I can’t believe life’s so complex / When I just want to sit here and watch you undress.”
The three albums to check out next
To Bring You My Love (1995)
The artwork for Harvey’s breakthrough album says a lot about its sound. Here’s a pre-Raphaelite Ophelia in the lake, but rail-thin, and in heavy drag: Harvey’s creating classic art, essentially, but giving it a fierce, distressing twist. For this album, Harvey was without Steve Vaughan and Rob Ellis, her original band, for the first time, and wrote these songs in the remote countryside. Her new solo personality rages from even its softest corners. The echo of Patti Smith’s raw poetry mixes with ragged blues, and folk’s obsession with lost sons and daughters rubs against earworm melodies. C’mon Billy and Down By the Water were played heavily on Radio 1’s evening schedule at the time, and remain hard to shift from the mind.
4-Track Demos (1993)
Stripped down to bare, brittle bones, Harvey’s early talent crackles and burns. This isn’t exactly Polly Jean’s Nebraska, but evokes dusty plains in a similar way, even if those plains are being prowled by a vengeful, ferocious woman in her early 20s. Rid of Me, in particular, sounds startling here, a terrifying expression of a woman not accepting the departure of her lover (“I’ll tie your legs / Keep you against my chest”), while Yuri-G shows another desperate to leave heartbreak behind for outer space. And god bless 50ft Queenie, gentler here than on Rid of Me, but no less menacing: “I’ll tell you my name: F-U-C-K”.
2011’s Let England Shake might have grabbed all the plaudits (and a second Mercury prize after Stories from the City), but it also marked the moment Harvey stopped creating distinct, artistic inner worlds and turned to politics, often with less interesting results (The Hope Six Demolition Project feels a little simplistic and patronising four years on). This overlooked album sees Harvey learning piano for the first time, her singing high, strange and eerie, resulting in her saddest, most despairing collections of songs. When Under Ether suggests a female, gnarly twist on TS Eliot’s Prufrock (“When under ether / The mind comes alive”). Broken Harp, featuring the instrument in question, is its bleak flipside (“Please don’t reproach me for how empty my life has become”). The Piano’s lyrics could be straight off Dry, but its delivery is delicate, desperately mournful and, crucially, new. It’s Joy Division’s Closer in Emily Dickinson’s clothes; a Northern soul compilation straight after to cheer things up might be a good idea.
One for the heads
Who Will Love Me Now? (B-side to That Was My Veil, John Parish and PJ Harvey, 1996)
Written by film and TV composer Nick Bicât, this plays like a lost theme from an eerie 1970s children’s drama, its lyrics rolling out like an exquisite, macabre fairytale. John Parish’s guitar plays a sweet melody against vaguely trip-hoppy stuttering rhythms, then Harvey enters full angelic mode. “In the forest is a monster / It has done terrible things,” she sings, beautifully and sadly, before it’s revealed who the monster really is.
The primer playlist
For Spotify users, listen below or click on the Spotify icon in the top right of the playlist; for Apple Music users, click here.
PJ Harvey: “I feel things deeply. I get angry, I shout at the TV, I feel sick”, by Dorian Lynskey, the Observer (2011)
A fantastic profile of Harvey from the time of Let England Shake, which digs deeply into her personality, presentation and politics, and how her art school approach has shaped her career.
Crack Actor: PJ Harvey’s To Bring You My Love at 25, by Ben Hewitt, the Quietus (2020)
A glorious, thorough dig into each track, assessing Harvey as an actor as much as a musician and comparing her with Marlon Brando: “An actor with intense, chameleonic charisma, as tough, scary, heartbreaking or unnerving as each role demands, bringing the record’s desperate souls to life with her full-blooded, full-bodied portrayals.”
PJ Harvey’s Rid Of Me: A Story, by Kate Schatz (2007)
A deeply peculiar but fittingly twisted response to Harvey’s second album, from the experimental 33 1/3 series of album reappraisals. This is a particularly off-beam approach: a novel in which two young women find themselves together in a house in a forest that borders their hometown, fighting forces that oppress them from both their present and the past. The 14 chapters follow the track listing, and sex, revenge and love feature highly. Anything to keep them entertained in self-isolation.
• What’s your favourite PJ Harvey album or song? Tell us in the comments below.