Poet, sculptor, poly-instrumentalist, singer, producer, actress, composer. Dorset born Polly Jean Harvey MBE is a true renaissance woman. She is the only artist ever to have won two Mercury Prizes. In her career she has also garnered eight Brit Award nominations, seven Grammy Award nominations and two further Mercury Prize nominations.
Her early works are darkly sexual, presenting a female sexuality that is confrontational and gritty rather than titillating. The cover art for her 1992 debut album Dry shows Harvey’s mouth squished onto a photocopier, as if she is kissing you and you have opened your eyes, catching her in the act.
The cover of 1993’s Rid of Me featured a grimy, black and white photograph of a naked and wet Harvey, flicking her long hair and staring defiantly down the camera lens, her eyebrow arched, a slyly seductive curve on her lip. The eponymous single, a tale of obsessive lust, builds slowly from a quiet, tense, throbbing guitar strum with her breathy, threatening vocals to a cacophonous crescendo and closes with Harvey repeatedly howling the refrain:
Lick my legs I’m on fire
Lick my legs of desire
As well as internal, the physical and the sexual, her early lyrics reference things as diverse as The Bible, English Pagan folk art, Tennessee Williams and Stephen King.
Put money in your idle hole
He said “wash your breasts, I don’t want to be unclean”
He said “please take those dirty pillows away from me”
However, it seems some critics couldn’t separate the poetry from the poet, unable to believe that the lyrics of a female singer/songwriter could possibly be anything other than autobiographical. Harvey said in 1998 “the tortured artist myth is rampant. People paint me as some kind of black witchcraft-practising devil from hell, that I have to be twisted and dark to do what I am doing. It’s a load of rubbish”
Harvey also denies there is a feminist agenda in her songwriting, stating “I don’t even think of myself as being female half the time. When I’m writing songs I never write with gender in mind. I write about people’s relationships to each other. I’m fascinated with things that might be considered repulsive or embarrassing. I like feeling unsettled, unsure.”
And so, from third album To Bring You My Love onwards, we see Harvey switching up her entire sound, look and subject matter for every album. Her back catalogue now transcends genre, it just is PJ Harvey.
She played with the imagery of faded Hollywood glamour and Southern Gothic on To Bring You My Love, recorded a Victorian piano ballad album (White Chalk) and on her sixth studio, Uh Huh Her, Harvey played every instrument apart from drums and was the sole producer. More recently, her inspiration has become more political. In 2013 she released a song in support of Shaker Aamer, the last British citizen to be held at Guantanamo Bay, and her 2011 Mercury Prize winning album Let England Shake is a multi-layered study of British identity and the horrors of war, both modern and historic. It is a stunning album and one I still can’t stop listening to, and every time I listen to it, I find a new reference, a new sample, a new refrain. The lyrics of this album become ever more relevant, as the world lurches towards an unnamed but surely inevitable crisis.
What if I take my problem to the United Nations?