PJ Harvey Reviews

My reviews of albums by Polly Jean Harvey:

1992: Dry (???)

Somehow I have yet to listen to PJ Harvey’s debut album.

Read my reviews of albums released in 1992.

1993: Rid of Me (9/10)

I have read about Harvey a lot, her albums are often in year-end best of lists and she’s been around long enough that everything that she releases gets a lot of coverage. But I’ve taken a really long time to listen to her.

About 12 years ago I won this massive, not very good compilation of a bunch of artists to play at this music festival in Sydney. It wasn’t very good because the music on it was just random tracks licensed from the 50 or so artists’ discographies, with no rhyme or reason. This was the first time I ever heard a PJ Harvey song. (In its defense, the compilation introduced me to Nick Cave, so that’s something.) I don’t know what it was about the song, but it didn’t make much of an impression. I was drowning in a certain type of indie rock at the time, and maybe it seemed to much of a piece of that. And so I didn’t rush out and buy one of her records.

In other news, I am an idiot.

This is a magnificent, noisy, abrasive piece alternative rock but combined with a unique lyrical perspective. (For example, Harvey excels at writing from others’ perspectives, not something that can be said for most singer-songwriters.) And punctuated by one of the least likely departures you’ll ever find on a contemporary alternative album. (I am, of course, referring to the string sextet – does Harvey play all of those instruments?)

I haven’t heard her debut, but hear she seems fully formed, she knows exactly what she wants to say and how she wants to say it. As I said, it’s magnificent. (And the whole thing is rendered extra uncomfortable by Albini, I suspect.)

My #5 album of 1993. Read my reviews of music from 1993.

1995: To Bring You My Love (9/10)

This definitely seems mellower (though hardly mellow) than the last time out on first listen, but I think that’s a mischaracterization. The rawness and emotion are channeled differently, that’s all. And it’s more varied musically – which seems an odd thing to say compared to an album that featured strings…. And it’s interesting to me that this album with a less notorious producer ends up sounding like a more interesting production.

The songs may be not quite as strong, but it could also just be that it takes a little longer for them to work their way in, they are longer after all.

The more I listen to it, the more I think it’s the equal of the previous album, despite the marked departure in sound. She combines her excellent songwriting with an aesthetic that cannot be mistaken for anyone else.

Read my reviews of 1995 albums.

1996: Dance Hall at Louse Point (???)

Read my reviews of albums released in 1996.

1998: Is This Desire? (9/10)

If you spend too much time reading music magazines – do people still do that? – or you spend too much time on the internet, it’s tempting to see Is This Desire? as the flip side of The Boatman’s Call, or a direct response to it or some combination of the two. The easiest thing for listeners with a tiny bit of knowledge of the personal lives of artists is to project what we think we know onto the art. The Boatman’s Call is, at times, explicitly about Harvey after all so it stands to reason, doesn’t it, that Is This Desire? is at least in part about Nick Cave?

The biggest problem with this easy conclusion is that Harvey’s lyrics rarely if ever appear to be about Nick Cave (as far as I can figure). Moreover, in interviews with Harvey I’ve read – and by actually listening to her lyrics – it seems that Harvey is usually quite far from a confessional songwriter. I’m sure this record was heavily influenced by their break up – how could it not be? – but it feels like a fool’s errand to spend time parsing these words for explicit signs of Nick Cave. (If that’s what you feel like doing, just listen to The Boatman’s Call, where he explicitly sings about her and their relationship?) I thought I had to get that out of the way. (I will grant that it’s hard to listen to “The Garden” without imagining it is about Nick Cave if you know about the relationship.)


What a left turn. It’s not the absolute biggest left turn from a songwriter ever, obviously, but it’s quite substantial, especially once you get past “Angelene,” which at least sort of resembles her previous sound, albeit slower and softer, and “The Sky Lit Up,” which definitely sounds like a bit of a departure but is also recognizable. Once you get to “The Wind” you’d be wondering who you’re listening to if it wasn’t for Harvey’s distinct voice. (Perhaps this sequencing was done on purpose, to avoid scaring off her fans.)

RYM lists this as “trip hop,” which is a huge stretch most of the time. Sure, it’s clear she’s been listening to it, but to classify a record like this as “trip hop” or “downtempo” or “electronic” is to really mislead listeners. This is still a PJ Harvey album, only many of the songs have had a bit of a 1998 makeover.

The surprise is how much the makeover works. Perhaps that’s because Harvey is inimitable and any clothes her songs wear will fit. Perhaps she wrote some of the songs with a mind to arrangements like this. Either way, the record manages to both sound utterly new and exactly like you expect her to sound. (It helps that some of the songs do sound like her old stuff.)

At the moment, this is not my favourite set of songs she’s written, but I appreciate the left turn enough to overlook that. (I also suspect that, as with her other albums, I will come to like the songs more with time.)

Just a really great record that expands her sound without compromising anything about what made her great in the first place. (Well, almost…)

My #5 album of 1998. Read my reviews of music from 1998.

2000: Stories From the City, Stories From the Sea (7/10)

PJ Harvey is one of the great songwriters of her generation, and this album is another fine example of her abilities. But the record marks a bit of a change in aesthetic for her (as far as I know) that I don’t exactly love.

So this is a good set of songs. It has two particularly notable songs for her career, the famous duet with Thom Yorke and the first of her songs I’ve ever heard, “Good Fortune”. (I’m not sure I’d like “Good Fortune” if I heard it now. But it really was the first PJ Harvey song I ever heard, so I know it well.) But the rest of the material is mostly up to her very high standard. Though I’ve heard only about half of her albums at this point, I think the song quality here is pretty comparable to some of her best work.

The issue for me and, I think, for a lot of fans, is the aesthetic, one which is way more polished than her early records and far less risky (for her) than Is This Desire?, the previous album. Musically it might be her least interesting record to date – well, at the very least it’s the least raw or naked (or whatever word you prefer). And that’s a problem for many of us when a great part of her appeal was her edge.

But it sounds good anyway – this is not a record that is “over produced” in the conventional sense of the term. It is only relatively over-produced, given the nature of Harvey’s early albums and how raw they are.

In the end, for me, it’s saved by its material, which is quite strong. The album will likely never be a favourite of mine, given that I really do love her early aesthetic – and sort of think it’s central to her songs being as captivating as they are. But I think the material here is good enough that I can overlook the relative polish.

Read my reviews of of 2000 albums.

2004: Uh Huh Her (???)

Read my reviews of albums released in 2004.

White Chalk (9/10)

The (lady) balls that it takes to make such a drastic about face in one’s sound is absolutely incredible. I am blown away.

I have no idea when she made this change, to be honest, as I haven’t heard anything she made (beyond one song) between the mid nineties and this release, but this is crazy.

Not only has she dropped her signature electric guitar (on which she had a rather unique style) for piano and other instruments, but she is singing in a different range. I mean, what? Who does that? The balls.

I love when an artist pushes herself into new areas like this. And she’s written another stellar set of songs to accompany this radical change in direction.


My #2 album of 2007. Read my reviews of music from 2007.

2009: A Woman a Man Walked By (???) with John Parrish

Read my reviews of 2009 albums.

Let England Shake (9/10)

Harvey continues her new chamber direction, this time with help from Mick Harvey, which is exciting. Harvey (Mick) helps to add a new dimension on this record that was missing from the last – this is, I guess, a little more closer to rock than that last record, though that could be a decision PJ and Parish made themselves. She’s still singing in this new range mostly though, which definitely makes this a piece with the previous record.

There’s a far more coherent concept here, this time – at least to my ears, upon only three listens. And the recording is a little less obviously “difficult” – that’s not really the word I want, but the hooks are more evident.

So musically I think this is a little more in line with her past than White Chalk, but the set of songs is stronger, more coherent, and so I at least initially like it even more. It’s obviously not as daring, but just as good.

My #1 album of 2011. Read my reviews of albums released in 2011.

2016: The Hope Six Demolition Project (???)

I haven’t listed to any recent PJ Harvey albums for some reason. Read my very few reviews of music from 2016.

2019: All About Eve (???)

Read my very few reviews of 2019 albums.

2022: Bad Sisters Soundtrack (???) with Tim Phillips

Read my very few reviews of albums released in 2022.

2023: I Inside the Old Dying Year (???)