With most groundbreaking artists there comes a sense of amazement at their initial salvo, an almost bewildering realization as to why and how no one had done what they’re doing before. To wit, Nirvana took the same four chords everyone else uses and created the world shattering “Smells Like Teen Spirit” riff; and back in 1962 Brit scruffy Brits covered Chuck Berry songs and voila, The Rolling Stones. By 1992 we’d already been introduced to plenty of fierce XX chromosome rockers, from Ronnie Spector to Patti Smith to Joan Jett…but the modern rock era had never seen or heard anything like PJ Harvey.
A tiny young firebrand from the English countryside (the “West Country Girl,” as she was immortalized in the Nick Cave song of the same title) with a guttural howl of a voice, and a penchant for oversized thrift store outfits, Harvey ferociously crashed the party with her debut Dry, a loud, guitar rock album featuring some of the most personal and human lyrics we’d ever heard, such as the embarrassingly emasculating “You leave me dry” of the title track (take that, boys). She has since said it was her first and perhaps last chance to make a record, so she wanted to put everything into it—“it was a very extreme record.”
Few would dispute that, and Dry immediately took its rightful place on almost every thoughtfully prepared “must have” and “best of” list.
A year later, her sophomore release Rid Of Me begat more distortion and aggression, thanks in part to ‘don’t call him a producer’ Steve Albini. Whatever his distinction, Albini—who would use Rid Of Me as a calling card when courting Nirvana prior to producing their In Utero album—helped Harvey distill her vision to its most stark, effective form. Unremittingly raw and visceral, the album was an immediate tent pole of what was generally referred to as “alternative music,” with single “50 ft. Queenie” hitting the top 30 in the UK, and its accompanying video becoming a “Buzzworthy” on MTV.
After a whirlwind few years the PJ Harvey Trio, which had made the first two albums and toured constantly in their support, disbanded, and newly solo artist Harvey retreated to the self-isolation of an English farmhouse. There, she spent most of 1994 out of public view while writing songs that would become her third album, To Bring You My Love. Released in early 1995, it received unanimous, unwavering acclaim, and 25 years later, with over a million copies purchased, remains her best seller. It was the Village Voice album of the year, is one of Rolling Stone‘s top 500 albums of all time, and its lead single “Down By The Water” hit #2 at Modern Rock radio. PJ Harvey had triumphed.
In celebration of the silver anniversary of her breakthrough album, UMe/Island have reissued all three of those early works, plus previously unreleased demo compilations, on all formats including vinyl. An additional two albums with longtime collaborator John Parrish are also slated for release.
It’s been said that Kurt Cobain was the last true rockstar—and certainly there have been few challengers in the 26 years since his death. But PJ Harvey rocked just as hard, and is still making awesome music; revisiting her early albums makes us wonder if maybe the mantle really does belong to her.