There are so many musicians and bands that I've listened to obsessively for years, or even decades in some cases. The list is long, but the usual suspects at the top of that list include Lou Reed and/or the Velvet Underground, Patti Smith, Marvin Gaye, the Pretenders, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Pearl Jam, Soundgarden, Neko Case, Cat Power, the Who, the Faces, Dusty Springfield, Iggy Pop, the New York Dolls, Tom Petty, Cheap Trick, and on and on. These are just a few of the musicians whose music I return to again and again. Sometimes years go by between deep dives into their catalogs, but I always return to them. And while the way I listen to their music has changed—from physical albums back in the day, to iTunes in the early aughts, to simply streaming their stuff whenever I want now (because it's all out there, for public consumption—thank you, interwebs), I can still go down the rabbit hole and get lost in amazing aural soundscapes that still thrill me the same way they did years ago. But I've noticed for years now that the one artist I keep coming back to, religiously, more than any other, is Polly Jean Harvey. I have her entire discography and they are some of the only CDs I still cart back and forth to my car to blast on the way to and from work. And I find myself streaming her songs all the time, too. There have even been times over the last handful of years where I've listened to nothing else except her music, for weeks on end. After doing this enough over the years, I realized how much I rely on her music to get me through things. Her music hits all the right notes for me, both emotionally and intellectually.
PJ Harvey, the band, released their first album in 1991. I know it's cliche, but their first two albums, Dry and Rid of Me, really did explode on the scene at the time. They brought the "power" in "power trio"—their sound was so loud, so raw, so stark, that it was simultaneously frightening and euphoric. They updated the dirty blues and gutter punk sounds of previous decades into something for '90s kids like me. They sounded classic yet also completely contemporary, all at the same time. They were a band, but Polly Jean was the driving force, clearly. Her lyrics, guitar playing, and voice combined to form a tsunami of sound that was unlike anything else out there at the time. This wasn't about technical musicianship, it was about pure, brute force conveyed through amps turned to 11 and a vocalist who sounded like both an angel and a banshee.
From there, Harvey chose to record as a solo performer but kept working with great musicians and her sound continually evolved with every record. She's rarely ever done the same thing twice, with each record being its own distinct statement, yet the entirety of her catalog still works beautifully together—while her styles and sounds might morph from album to album, she is the through-line between all of it, the link that ties it all together. Whenever she creates a new sound, the core of the music is still that idiosyncratic personality that Harvey brings to every song she writes. Her music is always changing, yet always clearly the work of the artist Polly Jean Harvey. People talk about Bowie and Neil Young being chameleons; they're probably the two biggest mainstream examples of this. But for my money, Polly Jean out-chameleons either of them. She definitely shares something in common with Bowie and Young, in that she doesn't seem to care one bit what anyone thinks of where she goes next musically. She's truly, fiercely, independent in her music-making. I think that's the best kind of musician to follow, really. I want to go on a journey with musicians like that, to let them lead me into new areas while they still retain the elements that made me obsess over them in the first place.
We saw PJ Harvey open for U2 in 2000, when she was touring around her most commercially successful album, Stories from the City, Stories from the Sea. This was well past the dying days of my U2 fandom—as a child of the '80s they were one of the first big rock bands I ever knew or liked. Every kid liked them in 1987. By 2000 though, I was listening to them less than ever, but the chance to see them was too much to pass up. Obviously, the big draw for me was the chance to—finally!—see Polly Jean perform. I'd been into her for a while. Her then-new record was easily my favorite album of that year and I played it constantly and recommended it to anyone who would listen (sorry to some of my friends who listened patiently). Once we saw her that night, my Polly Jean fandom went from strong to full-blown. She was electric that night in concert, even though we saw her in a half-filled arena (you know, people always skip the opener), far from the stage. I alternated between watching the larger, projected version of her on the jumbo screen and the tinier, actual version that was across the arena from me. Both were equally magnetic. She tore through her set, playing almost every song I wanted to hear that night. She used to tour a lot in the years leading up to and for a few years after we saw her, but it was still rare to be able to see her here in the states. So that show is easily a live music highlight of mine. Oh, and U2 were pretty good that night, too. Just not in the same league as Polly Jean, in my humble opinion.
In the car recently, we heard Led Zeppelin's "When the Levee Breaks," followed by Harvey's "Down by the Water" I'd never thought of it before, but it seemed so obvious after hearing the two songs together: Harvey's music fits perfectly with Zeppelin's heaviest stuff. She's always seemed too edgy and prototypical punk to have much in common with Zeppelin's bloated brand of classic rock (which, let's be clear, I love), but it was obvious how these songs shared something primal, something fierce, something heavy. Harvey's music hits with the same kind of pure force and raw power that Zeppelin and bands like the Stooges did in their best moments. Even her quiet songs are devastating because of her utterly indomitable force of will. You can't be a passive listener to PJ Harvey's music. So in that car ride, after "Down by the Water" finished, I was really hoping the next song played would be the Stooges' "Down on the Street," Now that would have been a killer trifecta. That didn't happen, but I can spin them in succession on YouTube someday to get the full effect. Hearing Polly Jean's music served up right after a slab of '70s hard-rock-updating-of-classic-blues was a revelation. It gave me an entirely new appreciation for her music, even after being a fan for more than twenty years at this point. That's the thing about Polly Jean. She's always presenting a new side to herself, one that only enhances and deepens this fan's affection for her music. I'm along for the journey, for the long haul.
A video shortlist of a couple of my favorite PJ Harvey songs (far from complete):
"Rid of Me"
Three for the price of one here with "O Stella - Dress - Hair"
And some kind YouTube user with great taste in music has uploaded PJ's entire set, live at the 1995 Glastonbury Festival. It's killer, trust me. If the opening version of "Meet Ze Monsta" doesn't blow your mind, I'm worried for you.