25 Years Ago: PJ Harvey Debuts with ‘Dry’
Polly Jean Harvey was raised on a sheep farm in the small English village of Bridport (population 600). Her parents (quarryman father and stonemason mother) used to play Captain Beefheart's freak-out treatise Trout Mask Replica as dinner music. These two facts—the stifling small-town confinement and the advent of abstraction as normal discourse—go a long way toward explaining PJ Harvey's debut album, Dry (1992), which sounded like little else available at that time and which still exerts influence today.
Made for around $5,000 in a tiny London studio with local Bridport musicians, Dry surprised everyone—including its creator—by first getting heard, then garnering a great deal of critical praise.
"I didn't think anyone would play it," Harvey told Filter magazine. "I was just completely amazed I had the opportunity to make a record. There's no way I thought anyone would buy it, or that I'd ever make another. I didn't think anyone would want to hear that music, 'cause it was quite strange, extreme music for the time."
It might have also been because PJ Harvey was only a year removed from a disastrous debut gig in the British equivalent of a bowling alley in the tiny riverside village of Charmouth.
“We started playing and I suppose there were about 50 people there," she recalled in an interview with The Guardian, "and during the first song we cleared the hall. There were only about two people left. And a woman came up to us, and shouted, 'Don't you realize nobody likes you! We’ll pay you; you can stop playing, we’ll still pay you!'"
A year's worth of playing, however, tightened up the trio (which also included bassist Steve Vaughan and drummer Rob Ellis), sufficiently to render Harvey's songs in as brutal and uncompromising a fashion as possible.
Take the opening salvo of "Oh My Lover"—a dirge, a slow-moving slide into desperation, as the protagonist begs her lover to not leave her, even though he has begun seeing someone else. The spare bass and drum accompaniment that opens the song becomes a full-on storm of distortion by its end, with Harvey and Ellis wailing, "There's no time" with pure, unfettered anguish. It's a disconcerting listening experience—and it's the first song on the album.
Listen to PJ Harvey perform "Oh My Lover"
Dry received a good bit of attention for songs like "Sheela-Na-Gig" (addressing a vulva-baring Celtic idol) and "Happy and Bleeding" (which seemed to celebrate menstruation) in which many found feminist overtones amidst the aggressive music. Polly Jean Harvey claimed to have nary a concern about such things.
''I can see what really gets people's backs up,'' she told Rolling Stone. ''But at the same time, I am not really aware of that … I feel very ignorant about it. Now maybe that is being very ungrateful to what's gone on before, but … I don't know what's gone on before and don't feel the need to find out. And people will criticize me for that, say, Well, you should bloody well find out what's goin' on then' – and people already have – but I don't have the time or the energy.''
Many also assumed Harvey's first-person protagonists were proxies for herself, another aspect she denies.
"I think a constant mistake that people make with musicians—and very especially with myself—is treating every song as some sort of autobiographical story from my life," she told Filter. "I'm a songwriter, I'm a storyteller. I use my imagination to tell stories with a slant of my own emotional interpretation. But these are not autobiographical songs and no, they're not at all personal to me."
Ultimately, Harvey simply wished to do what any musician wants to do—take the sounds inside her head and translate them for listeners outside it. Those sounds resonate to this day, in music from artists as disparate as country-rock chanteuse Lydia Loveless and snappy, snarky singer-songwriter Courtney Barnett. What they take in inspiration is reflective of the effort PJ Harvey put into Dry.
"I'm somebody who looks for something that's going to shock or excite me," she told The Telegraph. "[Something] that really shakes me up in some way inside, so you have to stop and really take a look at what you're feeling and why you're feeling it. And nothing was doing that for me. So I had to do it for myself."
PJ Harvey Albums Ranked in Order of Awesomeness