Polly Jean Harvey could have done a lot of things. She could have gone to art school, could have made palatable pop music with her multi-instrumental prowess and commanding voice, or have left all her songs inside her head, not doing anything with them. But she didn’t. Instead, she spent two weeks holed up in Minnesota with renowned Nirvana producer Steve Albini and her band, crafting the album oft regarded as her best, and easily one of the best of 1993, or even the whole decade.
Album opener and title track Rid Of Me easily sets the stage for the rest of the album. As she sings about revenge and twisting her lover’s head off, tinny falsettos that almost sound like a newfangled synth sound flit in and out of focus until the band explodes into a screaming chaos of a chorus that proves PJ Harvey can handle dynamic changes better than Nirvana ever could.
With PJ Harvey’s name and voice being the forefront of the band, and with the knowledge that after Rid Of Me came out, the trio broke up and Harvey continued as a solo artist, the album easily feels like a solo project, but you can’t miss how the drums, bass, and guitar blend together to create a thrashing, dark, and booming instrumental that evokes the folky improvisations of Violent Femmes.
To put it bluntly, the album sounds like the cathartic release of pain. Endlessly raw, brutal, rough, punky, grungy, and bluesy, the songs are 50 feet tall. She’s not trying for a pretty sound, but that’s what makes it so beautiful. An example is her grungy cover of Highway 61 Revisited by Bob Dylan. It’s a flawless reinvention of a classic tune, that keeps the 60s rock and roll spirit intact but shoves into the 90s to get a little dirty.
Harvey’s voice is a behemoth of pleading, screaming, and experimentation, and she can go easily between subtle vibrato on Rid Of Me, vocalized moans of anguish on revenge-seeking Legs, leaps of faith into head voice on Me-Jane or 50ft Queenie, even David Byrne-esque shouts on Rub Til It Bleeds.
Near the end of the record, the themes of sadness, violence, death, revenge, and pain, have been filtered into raw anger and exhaustion. Almost every woman has been taught since birth to tamp down anger and always seek to please, but Harvey said fuck that and let it all out.
It’s this release that leads to Dry, a track originally written for her first album of the same name, where as Harvey admits that her lover leaves her dry, she sounds so tired, like she just wants to lie down in the leaves outside her native Dorset, watching the sky darken and the cleansing rain start to fall.
She’s also sounding inspired by the feminist punk movement Riot Grrrl, on Dry with guitars that sound like a discarded song from Bikini Kill’s Revolution Girl Style Now demo, and on the fiercely ferocious Snake that rivals Kathleen Hanna in terms of anger and energy.
But it’s on the last song, Ecstasy, amid giant, unclean riffs, and a wall of sound, that she sounds happy, ready to move on and let go from the anguish on Rid Of Me, into new projects, loves, and experiences.