Dorset is a picturesque county in the south of England. Not the kind of place where vivid, tortured angst is engendered or pours forth on a regular basis. However, this is where Polly Jean Harvey grew up. Whether her songs of pain and bitterness are derived from personal experience is open to conjecture. She claims not, and describes herself as ‘an extremely quiet person, who doesn’t go out much, doesn’t talk to people’. I first encountered her music when a friend played me some tracks from Dry and raved about it. Time has shaped my reactions, as I hated it to begin with, but now regard her output as that of a true rock original: my four favourites of her Festive Fifty entries are here for your delectation today.
Her second single Sheela-Na-Gig (FF 1992 #2 and All-Time FF 2000 #49) betrays a youth spent listening to blues in all its configurations, and is a blistering, two-chord dynamo that starts quietly and then unleashes its energy with an irresistible force. This came from Dry, which she says she put all her energy into making, as she didn’t know if she’d get the chance to make another album.
1995’s To Bring You My Love was her most commercially successful album up to then, and contained the song Down By The Water (FF 1995 #17), a menacing story of a woman who drowns her baby: the brooding atmosphere is underscored by a string section. This prompted some to assume she was a wicked character, another accusation she has strenuously denied:
It certainly made me learn a lot about how people interpret things. I learnt very quickly that you cannot control how people take what you give them. It’s at the point that it goes on sale in the shops that you have to relinquish control, and I’m quite happy to do that now. Rock music does a lot of things. I know what it does inside of me. It’s a turn on. It’s physical. But it can also be funny. At the start, I was surprised that people were taking things very seriously that I’d been singing with my tongue in my cheek. I find this stuff about me being the ultimate ball-breaker quite funny now, quite amusing. [Hot Press Interview]
The song found its way into the heroin-drenched confessional The Basketball Diaries.
The title track from Is This Desire (FF 1998 #50) typifies her new approach to music, which did not find favour in all quarters, but is her personal favourite. Understated to the point of self-effacement, it seems to detail a search for identity that had caused Harvey to don cabaret dresses and elaborate make-up for the previous album’s tour. The album gave her two UK top 40 singles.
Finally, 2004’s Uh-Huh-Her, on which she played virtually all the instruments herself, set the seal on an eccentric but never less than interesting recording career: the Sunday Times called it ‘a thrilling, bone-rattling barrage, interleaved with moments of hushed, accordion-flecked intimacy whose closeness and apparent candour make you want to shield yourself from their passion’. The hit single The Letter (FF 2004 #16) runs the gamut of emotions from quiet breathiness to shrill, raw emotion in a way that seems to sum up all her music in one neat package.