PJ HARVEY – ” Rid Of Me “

Posted: December 12, 2021 in WE LOVE
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PJ Harvey’s 1993 sophomore “Rid Of Me” is a perfect album, a monumental release that radiated mischief and androgyny. It took apart the perculiarities of performing gender, and began her ascent in becoming one of the most important figures in contemporary music, underground or otherwise. Presented alongside the album demos, “Rid of Me” thunders with the same throaty and menacing intensity it did almost 2 decades ago.

September 24th, 1993, Polly Jean Harvey made her “Tonight Show” debut with a peculiar solo performance of the title track from her second album, “Rid of Me”. Her black hair looked crunchy and wet, so shellacked with product it gleamed. Sloppy streaks of raspberry lip liner ringed her mouth, and thick brows framed eyes that radiated mischief. In a dramatic departure from the androgynous black uniform she’d adopted in advance of her debut, 1992’s “Dry”, she wore a gold, sequined cocktail dress that sparkled in the light. Her self-presentation screamed femininity—but the form that femininity took was so performative, so purposefully imperfect, it confronted you with the arbitrary strangeness of gender itself, the visual equivalent of repeating the word “woman” over and over until it sounded like a foreign utterance.

After the tense summer tour that had followed Rid of Me’s spring release, she had split with her bandmates, drummer Rob Ellis and bassist Steve Vaughan, in the trio they’d called PJ Harvey. So Polly appeared on Jay Leno’s “Tonight Show” accompanied only by her guitar. From a technical standpoint, it wasn’t a stellar performance. On the album and in concert, Ellis had taken over the haunting falsetto backing vocals: “Lick my legs, I’m on fire/Lick my legs of desire.” Even the demo was mixed to layer Harvey’s throaty, menacing leads over her high-pitched chant.

But on Leno’s stage, she played both overlapping parts at once, and the effect was hair-raising. Her falsetto sounded involuntary and unnaturally girlish, a genderless being’s impression of women, as though the song of violent obsession had awakened some histrionic alternate personality within Harvey. She closed by taking her hand off the strings, repeating the “Lick my legs” chant a cappella smiling more to herself than to the audience. Leno pronounced her performance “very nice,” with all the forced enthusiasm of a high-school English teacher who’d asked the quiet girl to read her poem aloud. In the short interview that followed, he raised what must have seemed like an innocuous topic: Harvey’s rural roots on a sheep farm in Dorset. “So you still go back and do the chores?” Leno wanted to know. She responded with a list of tasks that included castrating sheep. “For the male lambs that you don’t want to become rams, you have to ring their testicles with a rubber band,” Harvey explained, as frank as any lifelong farmer would be. “And after about two weeks, they drop off.” The crowd roared as though she’d made a joke. Her Leno appearance feels like a truer representation of who she was at the time than any contemporaneous profile.

The British weeklies lost their minds about every new song her band put out—and more so about every image of Harvey that accompanied them. She had appeared naked from the waist up, her back to the camera, on the cover of NME in 1992, offending the delicate (and hypocritical) sensibilities of Melody Maker. Even the cover of “Rid of Me”, Maria Mochnacz’s photo of the artist in the bath, which exposed only her head, shoulders, and a shock of wet hair in whip-like motion, caused an outcry.

In the burbling bass tones that tie most of the songs together, simmering under the surface of “Rub ’Till It Bleeds,” twitching through the intro to “Yuri-G,” building tension in the hushed interlude a minute before “Dry” launches its final attack. She also imported these sounds from an agricultural region thousands of miles from Dorset: the Mississippi Delta. “Rid of Me” was neither the first nor the last PJ Harvey album that, unlike the punk-derived rock so many of her white contemporaries were making at the time, felt grounded in the blues. 1995’s “To Bring You My Love”, her masterpiece of dark sensuality, drew even more heavily on the structures and tropes of American roots music. But “Rid of Me” is still the PJ Harvey release that succeeds most spectacularly in evoking the unvarnished emotional intensity of the blues without ever resorting to mimicry.

At other moments on the album, it’s the sparseness of the instrumentals that throws Harvey’s words into relief: “I might as well be dead,” she bellows, amid the droning guitars and clanking percussion of “Legs.” Then, suddenly, the song is ending, and only the ghost of a strum accompanies the chilling final line, “But I could kill you instead.” On “Dry,” written for the album of the same name but saved for “Rid of Me”, a similar quiet sets in the first time Harvey utters the defining kiss-off of her early career: “You leave me dry.”

“Man-Size,” which appears in two very different versions, makes for a cathartic shout-along rocker; as a poem recited over a haunted string sextet, it’s unsettling enough to soundtrack a Hitchcock thriller. Amid the campy, sci-fi/rockabilly sprint of fan-favourite single “50 Ft. Queenie” and brutal verbal assaults like “Snake,” “Missed” is the most conventionally pretty song. In a chorus that escalates as she repeats “No, I missed him,” Harvey could be baring her lonely soul.

“Rid Of Me” and 4 Track Demos vinyl reissues, Originally released through Island Records UK in 1993, “Rid Of Me” was produced by Steve Albini and features the singles “50ft Queenie and “Man-Size”. The 4 Track Demos, also released in 1993, is a collection of demos recorded at home between 1991-1992 and presents a number of songs from “Rid Of Me” in their first incarnation. Artwork for both was shot by long-term creative collaborator Maria Mochnacz.

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