text by Adam Lehrer
Today, PJ Harvey releases her ninth full-length record The Hope Six Demolition Project. At the time of writing this article, I haven’t been able to fully listen to the record. But if the album’s first three singles are any indication, she is still one of the most important artists working in rock n’ roll: The Orange Monkey, The Community of Hope, and The Wheel juxtapose the dark but sublime beauty and evocative imagery that PJ Harvey has used to influence two generations of rock fans. PJ Harvey is the best kind of rock star: she’s an amazing songwriter, her sound is malleable and singular, she understands the power of image and aesthetic, and she’s absolutely fascinating as a human being.
And if you look at the very beginning of Harvey’s career, it’s almost hard to fathom the fact that she’s still here and still relevant. After her debut record (still recording under the moniker The PJ Harvey Trio) Dry was released in 1992, Harvey had a bit of a breakdown crushed under the weight of new found fame, a stressful move to London, and her first awful breakup. In interviews, she evaded questions about the meanings of her lyrics and refused to discuss her conceptual processes. But it worked for her. In many ways, Harvey is a callback to the rock star as an artist. You certainly don’t hear a lot of, “I just do this for the fans, bro” type statements from her. Like Dylan, Hendrix, Patti, and Lennon, it seems like Harvey doesn’t always know the reasons that her music comes out the way it does. It just comes out: pure creation. That being said, she sometimes seems to be as aware of the importance of visuals, almost as much as even Bowie was. When Dry came out, a dark but bluesy punk record, she was all black tights and Doc Maarten’s, almost like an Ann Demeulemeester ad come to life. When her music was amplified in production and grandiosity on the record To Bring You My Love, so was Harvey’s look: ball gowns and smeared makeup defined her new stage presence. For the recording of the new record, Harvey and her band recorded behind a glass wall and allowed paying spectators to watch, ever aware of the fact that people don’t just love listening to their favorite musicians; they want to see them and know them. Harvey is at once enigmatic and welcoming, like she is giving you your own personal access to her.
Where she differs from her classic rock predecessors however, is her gleeful abandon of genre trappings. When Harvey says that comparing her to Patti Smith is “lazy journalism,” she’s absolutely right. While Smith has always remain rooted in classic rock, Harvey has elevated her sound eons beyond the blues, Hendrix, and Captain Beefheart influences that she initially rooted them in. By the time Stories From The City, Stories From The Sea came out in 2000, Harvey had no problem incorporating synthesizers and computer into her sound. Her sound can be aggressive and bombastic, and minimalist and chillingly vulnerable. Sometimes her sound can be so varied on one record that the only sound that can tie tracks together is her preternaturally gorgeous contralto voice. That voice is the anchor that the entire spectacle is built around.
There is nothing else like PJ Harvey on Earth. She is one of the last artists in music to accrue wealth by subverting expectations, and that alone is something to celebrate.