Don't be scared of PJ Harvey
She's a sharp storyteller, not a tell-all singer.
By Amy Phillips
For The Inquirer
PJ Harvey sings like an angry angel, bringing the wrath of heaven down on an object of desire or hatred with moans, shrieks and whispers. She plays guitar as if the instrument is burning her fingers, but she enjoys the heat and wants you to feel it, too.
Many listeners find the 35-year-old's music to be a frightening fever-dream of feminine hysteria, but Harvey doesn't think her work is scary. It's classical music that disturbs her. "I find Arvo Pärt and Samuel Barber quite unnerving," she says on the phone from a tour stop in Indianapolis. "It makes you unsettled, and I like that very much."
Even more unsettling is the fact that this deep, dark noise comes from a quarryman's daughter named Polly Jean, born on a sheep farm in Yeovil, England. As a young girl, Harvey taught herself to play guitar by listening to Captain Beefheart, whose former sideman, Moris Tepper, opens Sunday's show at the Electric Factory. In 1991, she emerged with a startling song called "Dress," which captured the ache of women in too-tight outfits and ill-fitting heels.
That ache has never left her lyrics. But don't mistake Harvey for a confessional songwriter. "I'm a storyteller," she says. "Those emotions are things that I've felt or have the capacity to feel, but I use stories to convey them." Dry, her 1992 debut album, was a sucker-punch to the heart, gut and loins; Rid of Me, which followed in 1993, plunged a knife through those same soft, vulnerable organs.
After forays into polished diva theatrics (1995's To Bring You My Love), slow-burning intrigue (1998's Is This Desire?), and airy love songs (2000's Stories from the City, Stories from the Sea), Harvey has returned to her early raw, stripped-down sound with Uh Huh Her, released in June on Island Records. For the first time, she produced the entire record.
"It just happened in an organic way," she explains. "I demo'd the songs the way I always do, by myself at home on my rudimentary recording equipment. I liked the sound of those initial recordings so much that it seemed pointless to rerecord everything."
Songs such as "The Letter" and "Cat on the Wall" burn like hot oil, as sharp and startling as anything Harvey has ever recorded. And just as terrifying.