10 Best PJ Harvey Songs
Polly Jean Harvey, better known as PJ Harvey, is an English songstress and alt-rock goddess. She has been blazing a distinctive trail through the indie scene since the early '90s, and the multi-instrumentalist’s raw guitar sound, wide-ranging songwriting ability (electronica, folk, indie rock, etc.) and pure vocal tenacity have made her an artistic force to be reckoned with. When music lovers were fixated on grunge, this wild woman came along and showed the world a thing or two about killer songwriting chops. Harvey's career has flourished over the years, and she continues to surprise audiences and critics alike with her intense, down-and-dirty musical style. In celebration of her fierce aesthetic, we present this list of the 10 Best PJ Harvey Songs.
‘This Mess Were In,’ first up on our list of the 10 Best PJ Harvey songs, starts out with Harvey’s typically rough guitar, cutting back and forth between several different chords. Yet the first voice to pop into the mix isn’t hers at all, but rather a gentle melody coming from Radiohead’s Thom Yorke. Harvey then joins the fray with a line overlapping Yorke’s soothing tenor: “The city sunset over me.” This is a fairly laid-back tune, smoldering with cityscape imagery and a love that could very well be on the rocks, which only comes into light when the morning sun lifts above the skyscrapers. Romance in the city is a fleeting thing, it would seem.
No one could ever accuse Harvey of being timid when it comes to dark imagery. This song is about a woman who decides to drown her daughter, and yes, as you probably guessed from the title, the deed will be done “down by the water.” The story behind the lyrics comes from an old American folk song, ‘Salty Dog Blues.’ Irrespective of the lyrical content, ‘Down by the Water’ became one of Harvey’s biggest hits. A tough-sounding bass line runs through the core of the track, punctuated by Harvey’s bluesy voice, which is backed up by a brutal tale: “I had to lose her / To do her harm / I heard her holler / I heard her moan.”
‘Rid of Me’ is an outstanding example of early PJ Harvey. The song is raw art, with the musical bone poking through the skin. You get some drums heavy on the reverb, a distorted guitar with a heaping dose of muted chords and Polly Jean’s achingly soulful voice, which starts out at almost a whisper, then jumps into a falsetto before screeching into full-on banshee territory for the chorus: “Till you say don't you wish you never never met her / Don't you don't you wish you never never met her.” The song ends with a visceral sexual line, sung in a purposefully harsh voice, giving the tune a carnal vibe lifted from the gutter on a hot summer’s night. “Lick my legs of desire / Lick my legs I'm on fire.”
No. 7 on our list of the 10 Best PJ Harvey Songs could almost be considered straight pop if you listened to it without Harvey’s lyrics -- or her voice. Of course, the singer’s indie touch transforms ‘Good Fortune’ into a tune with far too much naked emotion for a bland, radio-friendly pop release. At its foundations, the track is good ol’ rock 'n' roll in the vein of the Pretenders. While the catchy tune has a few references to New York City (Little Italy, Chinatown) sprinkled throughout, the video was shot exclusively on the streets of London, after dark.
When PJ Harvey decided to collaborate with the English musician John Parish, the rockers eventually came out with two albums. ‘A Woman a Man Walked By,’ the second LP born of this harmonious pairing, was a creative tour de force. Parish handled the music, while Harvey wrote and sang all of the lyrics. ‘Black Hearted Love’ is a hard “love” song celebrating a certain kind of “rapture.” Harvey intones that she’ll “volunteer her soul for murder” in the name of her “black-hearted love.” The jarring guitars, swirling around sanctuaries of sweetness, make this tune an excellent addition to the less-than-ordinary love songs inhabiting the indie rock universe.
If you’re into obsessive behavior and tragic endings, then ‘A Perfect Day Elise,’ next on our list of the 10 Best PJ Harvey Songs, should be right up your alley. In this song, “Joe” is a stalker, or at the very least a man fixated on poor Elise. Of course, Elise has to die. The perfect day really didn’t belong to her, after all. There are references in this track to the short story ‘A Perfect Day for Bananafish’ by J. D. Salinger. The music grooves along at a brisk pace, accompanied by menacing beats, which create a crushing sense of urgency in the listener’s heart — helping one feel Elise’s foreboding anxiety.
While ‘Let England Shake,’ from the album of the same name, isn't necessarily indicative of the overall mood of the LP, it’s by far the most jubilant track on the record. The album deals largely with war and the evolution of human conflict. Harvey changed her normal vocal style for many of the songs and made ample use of the autoharp. Even though ‘Let England Shake’ is a cheerful-sounding tune, fueled by an almost child like poetic gate, the lyrics speak to something much darker lurking below: “The West's asleep / Let England shake, weighted down with silent dead / I fear our blood won't rise again.”
If you’re not familiar with ‘Sheela-Na-Gig,’ you could mistakenly believe you’re listening to an Ani DiFranco song upon first hitting play. It’s got that same kind of raw and buoyant energy to it. Harvey actually penned this tune when she was still a teenager. The song contains references to the overtly sexual “Sheela na gig” statues (female figures with grossly exaggerated vulvas) found in various parts of Great Britain, as well as a few ideas about what is and isn’t considered “clean” as far as the female body goes. It’s a rebellious and defiant piece of work, both musically and sexually — and it’s a pure joy to listen to.
‘A Place Called Home’ is an acoustic-based song that makes incredible use of Harvey’s gritty voice, turning it into a sensual instrument full of longing and the promise of one day being together with someone you love. The tune is fairly straightforward and stripped down, but thanks to the simple yet poignant lyrics, as well as the songstress’ expert delivery, ‘A Place Called Home’ serves up more than the sum of its parts. “One day they'll be a place for us," she sings. "And the battle is won / And the planes keep winging / And I'm right on time.”
‘Happy and Bleeding,’ tops on our list of the 10 Best PJ Harvey Songs, is about a woman “sewing since time began” in order to cover her naked body, which doesn’t make sense to her at all. The song starts out soft and rather sweet and builds into a crescendo with the first chorus. From that point on, the tension and volume increase — with a brief repose thrown into the mix — until Harvey lets all of her emotions out. “Fruit flower myself inside out," she sings. "I'm tired and I'm bleeding for you.” Why should a woman ever feel ashamed of her body or conceal the flesh nature blessed her with?