Friday, 10 June 2016

My Favourite Album Ever

For an album that invites adjective like 'raw' and 'feral', PJ Harvey's Rid of Me has a remarkably quiet recording quality. Perhaps engineer Steve Albini wanted an album that could be played very loud indeed. While Albini's status as the master of rough production (when Nirvana wanted to retreat from the smooth production of Nevermind, they gave him a call) might suggest his influence, the album was released before the compression wars and perhaps it has been remastered by now, removing the nuances for a more immediate rock sound.

Of course, Polly Harvey matured after this album - she was an official war artist for a while - and the lyrics are infused with an adolescent savagery that would be absurd for an older artist. Although she remains an interesting artist (as any ful kno, this is code for 'not very exciting, but still...'), and deals with similar themes, Rid of Me has a vicious emotive mode that speaks more for the rush of young love and disappointment. Once thirty candles are on the birthday cake, singing about love in this febrile, fragile attitude just gets... creepy. For evidence, find The Rolling Stones singing anything they recorded in the 1960s after 1973. 

It's far from a perfect album - when Harvey tries to shift the mood from aggressive, she turns in dirges (Hook, which is a tuneless whine on both this album and the subsequent Four Track Demos), lazy cover versions (Highway 61 is given a pointless and melodramatic retread). And the song structure is pretty much the same for every track: quiet intro, sudden dynamic shift (then very fashionable, from The Pixies through Nirvana), Harvey's increasingly impassioned vocal, the drummer going nuts on the cymbals and squealing like a castrato.

Yet it seems important, even nearly twenty-five years after its release.

At the time, Harvey rejected the label 'feminist', even though her lyrics evoked menstruation, sexual dryness, rough sex, the oppression of romance and love (a later song, Kamikaze, took 'love as war' pretty literally), male arrogance and privilege. She even said that she didn't identify as a woman 'half the time', which would have been a great marketing concept last year. 

The rawness (finally said it) and her obvious knowledge of rock history (she tended to cover classic blues numbers for b-sides) might have removed Rid of Me from a generic 'female' music (to be clear, I have no idea what that might mean, but it was the kind of stupid shit that rock critics would say in the 1990s, lumping Kim Gordon off Sonic Youth, Belly, riot grrl and Courtney Love into some bizarre 'women of rock' category. Here's an otherwise interesting piece which begins with some weird claim that PJ Harvey opened up stadium angst to female artists).

The album's opener and title track is slow and menacing: by the time Harvey gets to howling, she has set out the attitude she'll repeat through the album (until the startling finale). Sensual, yet despairing, caught up in reverie and revenge, crooning then crawling. 

Track two, Missed does not take up the style though, sounding closer to the previous, debut album. In fact, the first side of the album struggles to cohere. Rid of Me and Rub It are of a piece, but Hook feels like a failed experiment, Mansize Quartet a pose. 

The second track, Legs is, by comparison, tedious... then she returns to the template for what is possibly a soundtrack to a sex game or an act of sexual violence. It's where gender - Harvey's complaints to the contrary - becomes critical. Even David Bowie couldn't sing Rub It Until It Bleeds without sounding like a sex criminal.

Then side two happens...

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