Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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John Parish and Polly Jean Harvey [extended]

  • Dry [Indigo, 1992] A-
  • Rid of Me [Indigo, 1993] A
  • Man-Size [Island, 1993] ***
  • 4-Track Demos [Island, 1993] B+
  • To Bring You My Love [Island, 1995] A
  • Dance Hall at Louse Point [Island, 1996] **
  • Is This Desire? [Island, 1998] A-
  • Stories From the City, Stories From the Sea [Island, 2000] A+
  • Uh Huh Her [Island, 2004] **
  • White Chalk [Island, 2007] Choice Cuts
  • The Peel Sessions 1991-2004 [Island, 2008] ***
  • A Woman a Man Walked By [Island, 2009] A-
  • Let England Shake [Vagrant, 2011] B+

See Also:

Consumer Guide Reviews:

PJ Harvey: Dry [Indigo, 1992]
Since she doesn't fancy comparisons to Sinead or Kate Bush--"I'm like anyone as long as they're female. If they've got dark hair it's even better"--perhaps she'd prefer Cream or the Doors. Island Records sure would, but in a sexist world she's unlikely to achieve such heights of rockist catalogue stuffing--I just meant a band that sounds great until you listen to the words when you're not stoned and decide they're self-indulgent blather. This fate she's spared by the cloudy but essential feminist distinction between egoist bullroar and honest irrational outpouring--and of course by her postrockist guitar, where she starts to reinvent her instrument the way grrrl-punks reinvent their form. A-

PJ Harvey: Rid of Me [Indigo, 1993]
Never mind sexual--if snatches like "Make me gag," "Lick my injuries," and "Rub 'til it bleeds" aren't genital per se, I'm a dirty old man. And if the cold raw meat of her guitar isn't yowling for phallic equality, I'm Robert Bly, which is probably the same thing. She wants that cock--a specific one, it would seem, attached to a full-fledged, nonobjectified male human being, or maybe an array or succession of cocks, it's hard to tell. But when she gets pissed off, which given the habits of male human beings happens all the time, she thinks it would be simpler just to posit or grow or strap on or cut off a cock of her own. After which it's bend-over-Casanova and every man for him or herself. A

PJ Harvey: Man-Size [Island, 1993]
album-available single plus two utterly disparate signature B sides ("Wang Dang Doodle," "Daddy") ***

PJ Harvey: 4-Track Demos [Island, 1993]
All right, so this isn't a cult artist's first ripoff. The new songs assure that. "Easy," "M-Bike," "Hardly Wait," and especially the fleshpotted "Reeling"--where "Robert De Niro sit on my face" leaves no doubt about whose blow-job queen she wants to be--share the kind of eager emotionality that makes Steve Albini cringe, and the same looseness animates this "Yuri-G." But I don't know how anyone can compare Rid of Me's "Rid of Me" without succumbing to its marshalled power, or concluding that with some forethought she could find even more juice in her sexual enthusiasm. She is a performer, after all. B+

PJ Harvey: To Bring You My Love [Island, 1995]
Four albums in three years, each sonically distinct, each adding a thematic facet to a coherent sensibility. Pretty good for an alleged up-and-comer, eh? In fact, major, and I'll reserve the G-word if you will. Bored with raunchy details, she's going for universals: salvation, rapture, fulfillment, escape. Putting aside her rough lead guitar as unequal to this quest, she's applied herself instead to opera lessons that in no way prettify vocals that were pretty amazing even before they assumed all this range, modulation, and command, and traded in Steve Albini for Flood to help her get at some postsexual imperatives. The fuller sound they arrive at is far from slick--her buzzy keybs are as ominous as her guitar, her register shifts weirder than ever, and the mix can get disconcertingly murky. So watch out for pigeonholes. To fixate on blues or sex is to sell short religious yearnings, avant-garde affinities, and pop potential that are all intensified on an album whose generalization level only magnifies its impact. And to figure she's hellbent on the big time is not to think at all. A

Dance Hall at Louse Point [Island, 1996]
art project, theatre tryout, like that--striking proof that her words mesh best with her music ("Dance Hall at Louse Point," "Taut") **

PJ Harvey: Is This Desire? [Island, 1998]
Seeing Harvey in her most original live guise to date at the Hammerstein Ballroom, I didn't think Nick Cave or, heaven knows, Aretha Franklin. Instead I recalled the renowned art song singer Jan DeGaetani, whom I was dragged off to see 20-odd years ago. I didn't much enjoy DeGaetani--not my repertoire, let's say. But I admired her ease, her naturalness-within-formality, and more and more that's how it is with Harvey. In a charcoal suit and stacked heels plus red top, this was a concert artist repaying the adoration of her fans, but not so as she'd give them the early songs they wanted. Instead she concentrated on less immediate new material, which gained power in performance just as it does with repeated exposure on record. Melding modal tradition and concrète futurism, dancing to the strong beat as the moment required, she sounded so good she made what she had to say irrelevant. Which was and remains just as well, because what she has to say is limited. Is this desire? It must be, because all she's certain of is that her characters rarely get what they want. Hence, neither do listeners who want formal command to provide some release. While every song here kicks in eventually, starting with the two-minute "The Sky Lit Up," at times she could be the rock Wynton Marsalis. So thank God she'd rather be Tricky. A-

PJ Harvey: Stories From the City, Stories From the Sea [Island, 2000]
If Nirvana and Robert Johnson are rock's essence for you, so's To Bring You My Love. But if you believe the Beatles and George Clinton had more to say in the end, this could be the first PJ album you adore as well as admire. It's a question of whether you use music to face your demons or to vault right over them. Either way the demons will be there, of course, and nobody's claiming they won't catch you by the ankle and bring you down sometime--or that facing them doesn't give you a shot at running them the fuck over. Maybe that's how Harvey got to where she could enjoy the fruits of her own genius and sexuality. Or maybe she just met the right guy. Tempos and pudendum juiced, she feels the world ending and feels immortal on the very first track. The other 11 songs she takes from there. A+

PJ Harvey: Uh Huh Her [Island, 2004]
A genius's depressions can be as dull as anybody else's, especially if she thinks passion precludes laughs ("It's You," "The Pocket Knife") **

PJ Harvey: White Chalk [Island, 2007]
"When Under Ether" Choice Cuts

PJ Harvey: The Peel Sessions 1991-2004 [Island, 2008]
Eight efficient catalogue covers add a little flesh, four apt album-unavailables add a little catalogue ("Naked Cousin," "Sheela-Na-Gig"). ***

PJ Harvey & John Parish: A Woman a Man Walked By [Island, 2009]
A distinct odor of shtick emanates from Harvey's second full-length outing with her old pal Parish, who having been ceded the music is proud to emulate his friend the genius's crazy ways from the hard-riffing "Black Hearted Lover" to the forlorn "Cracks in the Canvas." In the wake of three questionable albums, shtick is a relief, not just because it's really great shtick but because after all these years we're happy to be clear about whether she's performing or expressing herself. Playing a spooky game of hide-and-seek or stealing the soul of a mother in mourning or kissing off a California where she you can bet never bought sunscreen or brutalizing a mama's boy with a chicken liver spleen, she's nothing less than the Queen of Goth, eternally uncrowned because some shtick she's just too good for. A-

PJ Harvey: Let England Shake [Vagrant, 2011]
Polly Jean Harvey was major when she meant to shake the world, a life project she gave up on after releasing her finest album in 2000--much of it set, as must be mere coincidence, in New York City. Creating a suite of well-turned if unnecessarily understated antiwar songs, she's a gifted, strong-willed minor artist bent on shaking England in particular. How much that work enriches anyone's understanding of World War I is open to a debate too niggling to pursue. What's certain is that her special interest in the Great War reflects the changing contours of her chosen chauvinism no less than her evolution from the rough-hewn Howlin Wolf she absorbed in downhome Dorsetshire toward the dulcet clarity of Lancashire's prog-folk Annie Haslam. "I live and die/through England/I live and die/through England"? You said it, lady--twice. B+