The artist known as Polly Jean Harvey confounds; it’s simply her nature. This year marks the 30th anniversary of her debut album, and therefore her entry into the public consciousness, and we’ve yet to pin her down. She sounds like nobody else, not even herself, from release to release. She’s accomplished the feat of building a carefully crafted aesthetic, sound and even vocal style for each piece of work she puts out, setting stringent barriers between one album era and the next. She picks apart relationships, gender, and her own darkness with more wit than anyone else in the business of writing and performing. She creates characters that go toe-to-toe with the devil himself, narrate an empire’s expansion from above, and seem to run on air between city rooftops. The only constant in the shape-shifting is that each character she creates shares her name. Perhaps only rivaled in duration and consistent acclaim by her contemporary (and one-time performance partner) Bjork, Harvey remains as vital an artist as ever. For people like me, there is Before Polly and After Polly. The listening that came between the two made for a complete revelation.
Even more impressive is the general consensus that PJ Harvey has never released a truly bad album. Many would argue (as I will attempt to do here) that every release is a necessary piece of understanding the ever-shifting audiovisual web she weaves.
For the past few years, Harvey has been revisiting the worlds she created with each of her albums for a series of reissues, with each project accompanied by a sibling album of demos. These full-length demo records follow the format first set by 4-Track Demos, released shortly after 1993’s Rid of Me, featuring rough versions of the songs from the studio album to which it was attached. This marked the first full-length work Harvey had released as a true solo artist—Dry and Rid of Me were technically released under the banner of her band, also called PJ Harvey, whose members decided they should go their separate ways following the tour for the latter album. The message 4-Track Demos sent was clear: The band was great, but the spark of these songs lay completely in their writer’s head, and they were just as brilliant when she was the only person who had touched them. Each new demo project we’ve finally gotten to hear only solidifies this idea.
Anticipating the final installment of the reissue/demo series with 2016’s The Hope Demolition Six Project (and also in light of these recent pictures of Harvey in the studio, hopefully working on a new album), coming this Friday, March 11, here are her nine studio albums and two collaborative albums with John Parish, ranked.
11. The Hope Demolition Six Project (2016)
Named after the HOPE VI program, a U.S. government HUD initiative that was initially created to revitalize public housing complexes (allegedly often just making space for further gentrification instead), The Hope Demolition Six Project broke new ground for PJ Harvey, even 24 years into her career. With many of the songs inspired by a trip to Washington, D.C., she picks up where she left off on Let England Shake five years earlier in terms of observational, slightly removed social and political commentary. It’s also notable that the whole thing was recorded in front of a crowd in 45-minute periods of time as part of an art installation at Somerset House in London, inviting outsiders into Harvey’s creative process more than ever before. The sense of community behind the record comes through even if you knew nothing about Harvey or the sessions beforehand, and though it may be ranked last here, the album still has some of the most beautiful moments she’s ever committed to record. The deep, choir-like backing vocals on “River Anacostia” and loping stomp of “The Ministry of Social Affairs” (which features Harvey on saxophone) tower over the torn-up Capitol beneath it, growing to such an overwhelming fever pitch that you’re just waiting for the songs to collapse. “The Community of Hope” also stands as a clear highlight, with the half-joyous, half-sardonic finishing cry of “They’re gonna put a Walmart here!” serving as proof that Harvey hasn’t lost her keen songwriter’s ear—nor her sense of humor.
10. Dance Hall at Louse Point with John Parish (1996)
Harvey has been working with musician John Parish since she was a teenager, previously collaborating with his band Automatic Dlamini and later inviting him to produce and/or play on five of her solo albums. With music by Parish and lyrics by Harvey, Dance Hall at Louse Point marked the first collaboration under both of their names, and they entered this new phase of their careers in the boldest way possible. The album is a disarming, atmospheric walk through a long-standing musical partnership where both feel safe enough to try whatever they want. The results were raw and occasionally frightening; Polly had sung about showdowns with the devil before, but the sinister side of her writing had never quite been put on display like it was here. From the absolute horror of “Taut,” with its eerily whispered “Jesus save me” refrain scattered throughout, to the wobbly, organ-tinged lament of “That Was My Veil,” both musicians are given the room to stretch in the direction of their sparser, more experimental tendencies. The tonally perfect cover of “Is That All There Is?” ties the whole thing up in a bloodstained bow, serving as the centerpiece of a project that keeps giving if you’re willing to put the time into it.
9. White Chalk (2007)
So few artists have discovered so many different ways to unsettle their listeners. After Harvey decided to learn piano and write new music on it after having relied on guitar for so long, ghosts filled the hollows in the barebones soundscapes she created, and White Chalk was born. “Disappears in the ether / One world to the next,” she sings on “When Under Ether,” describing the sound of her own voice twisting in and out of these sparse songs that build up around her as they go on, seemingly inventing themselves out of nothing. Details like the repeated, “Oh God, I miss you,” cracking like a revelation carried on the wind on “The Piano,” or the rushing harp runs on “Grow Grow Grow,” reveal a deep-seated urgency that becomes more obvious with each re-listen. White Chalk might stand as one of the most sonically uniform PJ Harvey releases, but still manages to surprise, delight and turn itself inside out with no warning. Clocking in at a relatively brief 33 minutes, it leaves none of its short runtime wasted.
8. Uh Huh Her (2004)
Following the major mainstream attention Stories From the City, Stories From the Sea brought Harvey, she almost reflexively stepped back into the slightly weird, sonically risky shadows, a niche in which she’s always been much more comfortable. Marking the first time she had produced a project on her own, she aimed to go back to basics, prioritizing eclecticism over everything else, and this album is what came out. Uh Huh Her is a living being, bouncing between styles on a dime as if its aim is to slap you awake, to make sure you’re paying attention. Moments of beauty on more conventional tracks like “You Come Through” and “It’s You” stand as steady anchors that tether sketches like “Who The Fuck?” and “No Child Of Mine” to the ground. Even if not every musical mask Harvey puts on is to your liking, it’s still fun to watch the balancing act of her constantly switching between them. The fact that she pulls any of it off is impressive in itself.
7. A Woman A Man Walked By with John Parish (2009)
In order to follow up their already fairly inaccessible first collaboration, Harvey and Parish pulled even further away from what one might have been expected from either of them next. Where Dance Hall is sparse and burns slowly, easing you into its world of discomfort, A Woman A Man Walked By is equally impossible to sit and easily digest, but is dense, brutal and really gets up in your face about it. Within the span of individual songs, the sound swings wildly between creaking ballads that feel like they might fall apart at any second and soaring, propulsive rock that eventually peters out after its big crescendos. Polly’s theatrical vocal range is perhaps put on display more prominently here than anywhere else in her discography, seemingly switching between who she’s playing in a given scene, moving between menacing growl and full-throated cry with a flip of the switch. Also, no other project of hers puts such stock in instrumental invention, adding even further depth to the complex songwriting, which demands it. Tracks like “Passionless, Pointless” and “Black Hearted Love” remain major benchmarks in Polly’s ever-evolving catalog of straight-up excellent songs. It’s also notable in that it’s the only album featuring her barking like a dog ( ... so far).
6. Dry (1992)
It’s rare to come across a debut album that sounds so fully fleshed out, but Harvey had been preparing for the chance to record her own material for years, and wasn’t about to waste it. At this point, “PJ Harvey” was still a band, consisting of its namesake, bassist Steve Vaughn and drummer Rob Ellis. Believing they would never get another opportunity to make a record, they made what, even now, sounds like a core thesis statement that Harvey would only embellish with each subsequent release. Though that means the production remains fairly simple, with most of the instruments played by the core trio, it’s impressive what they accomplished with their limited resources. The theme of gender roles that Harvey would revisit again comes up early, evident in the sing-along playfulness of singles “Dress” and “Sheela-Na-Gig” (“Heard it before, no more!”). Elsewhere, the immense atmosphere of the incredible “Plants and Rags” and “Water” showed Polly had the songwriting and arranging chops of someone who had been doing it professionally for decades. Sure, lots of people had picked up a guitar and made compelling music before, but never quite like this. Though it’s an easy statement to make when we have hindsight and a whole discography to back it up, let’s make it: Even if this had been the only thing PJ Harvey released, as they’d believed it would be, we’d still regard it as essential.
5. Let England Shake (2011)
Harvey’s second Mercury Prize winner Let England Shake marked another major pivot in a new creative direction, one that required not only historical research, but also the search for an appropriate vocal delivery, quite literally: She spent time crafting a warble higher than any she had attempted before to serve the new material, which saw her acting as omniscient narrator of England’s history of conquest and war. Specifically pulling from the history of the U.K.’s involvement in World War I, as well as the more recent casualties that came as a result of the then-ongoing British army presence in Afghanistan, the record reads as a love letter that can’t help but scorn its deeply problematic subject, even as it holds the nation close. There’s a grandiose elegance to every track, feeling as large and seminal a project as the ever-sprawling story it tells. Though not the most sonically adventurous version of PJ Harvey that we’ve seen thus far, it doesn’t really need to be. It’s difficult to argue that any extra flourishes would have improved the results, which teem with poetic lyrics and effective arrangements. Taking the idea that the artist stays vital by reinventing themselves to a whole new level, Let England Shake marked the first time Harvey, known for writing about the darker fringes of human nature, held her lens up to history at large, inventing her own type of epic wartime ballad in the process.
4. Rid of Me (1993)
For any artist with a devoted fanbase, it’s common that people who get into them have a first album they listened to that changed their life, and therefore, will always represent what that artist means to them, holding a special place in their heart. Rid Of Me is that PJ Harvey album for me. The combination of Steve Albini’s divisive (but certainly distinctive) production and Harvey’s daring lyricism sends shivers up the spine every time. Songs like “Man-Size,” “Me-Jane” and “50ft Queenie” twisted all expectation in how someone could write about masculinity and misogyny, not only with a sense of humor, but also with a sense of real danger, like this one person might single-handedly topple everything about the gender roles we force ourselves to fit into. The way this voice seethed through her teeth on “Man-Size Sextet,” truly howled on “Snake” and sounded like it could collapse into a fit of rage at any second on “Legs” (“And I might as well be dead / But I could kill you instead”) felt powerful, like it held something so heavy, you couldn’t even fathom the substance it contained. You simply weren’t meant to question her conviction—you just believed her. Yes, she’s king of the world, no follow-up questions. It was this idea of indestructible strength I had never thought someone like me could wield before, building upon what something like Horses had already instilled in me. Never shying away from its own intensity, the album builds a monument to the self that’s both vengeful and freeing. Also, in a career of everlasting songs, the title track might be (or at least should be considered) the definitive PJ Harvey track. Argue amongst yourselves.
3. Stories From the City, Stories From the Sea (2000)
“How could that happen again? / Where the fuck was I looking / When all those horses come in?” The line opens “Kamikaze,” but it could easily be repurposed to express how it feels every time Harvey transforms into yet another version of herself, as she does on this Mercury Prize winner. Inspired by a trip to New York in 1998 to film with Hal Hartley, which she ended up extending for nine months after falling in love with the city, she began writing for the project she would refer to as “pop according to PJ Harvey.” Perhaps the most singularly triumphant work in Harvey’s catalogue, Stories does defiance in a way she hadn’t yet explored, and feels confident in a way that floats above the rest of the world, rather than fighting back. What else in her discography captures the head-on swagger of something like “Big Exit” or “This is Love”? What else sounds like the gentle glide of Thom Yorke’s voice underpinning Polly’s in “Beautiful Feeling,” or the heavy, warm piano march that carries “Horses In My Dreams”? Even the gentle collapse and defeat of “We Float” feels like light flooding your senses in the best possible way. Though it’s unlikely that Polly will ever make anything this purposefully polished again, it’s a little blip of calm in the eye of the larger storm, a moment of shimmering assurance among a back catalog that largely aims to make the listener uncomfortable. Few albums by anyone have captured that precise feeling, making Stories something truly special.
2. To Bring You My Love (1995)
Aiming to write her own versions of the blues standards and Captain Beefheart songs she had loved for years, Harvey reemerged in the public eye with the devil and God on her mind, and what she called her “Joan Crawford on Acid” look smeared on her face. Despite her assertion that the new theatrical stage look was a cover for how lost she felt in her personal life, it still stands as a lot of the public’s mental image of what PJ Harvey looks like, playing a dragged-out version of herself that communicated these stories of a lost love and literally diving into the pits of hell to retrieve it. Mirroring the old blues tales of meeting the devil at the crossroads or sacrificing a physical representation of the soul (like, for instance, an imaginary daughter) to him, To Bring You My Love balances terror and tenderness effortlessly. Songs like “Meet Ze Monsta,” “Long Snake Moan” and “I Think I’m A Mother” bare their teeth until they split; Harvey growls, “I’m not running / I’m not scared,” and yells, with a smile you can practically hear, “In my dreaming / You’ll be drowning!” and you can’t help but cower like she’s in the room with you. On the flip side, the ballads reveal a bleeding heart beneath the spiky exterior without ever feeling saccharine or overdone (“Teclo” still stands as one of the loveliest songs we’ve heard from her). Regardless of each song’s specific plan of attack, not a single shriek or whisper sounds anything less than fearless. She hisses, “Come back here, man,” painted grin stretched wide, and you can imagine whatever deity exists down below shaking in their boots.
1. Is This Desire? (1998)
Harvey herself has said she considers this the greatest thing she has ever done, despite the fact that its writing and recording period took place while she was at her lowest point emotionally and mentally (according to an interview from the era, it was during a playback of “My Beautiful Leah” that she decided she needed professional help), most likely compounded by the fact that she was going through a fairly public breakup with another well-known musician. As you can expect from that information alone, Is This Desire? is hardly an easy listen, arriving like a visceral, uncut diamond stuck chronologically between two of her more commercially viable releases. However, it’s simply the most impressive and daring collection of songs she’s ever put out. There’s not a single wasted moment on it. It marks one of the few times where Harvey sounds like she’s not taking total control of her situation, instead sitting back and letting the moving, often cruel world wash over her. That newfound openness is hardly a negative; the album also sees her musical backing shifting from straight-up, guitar-driven rock to layered, diverse soundscapes that incorporate elements of trip-hop and electronic music. Not all of it is immediate, but it certainly demands your attention, pulling beauty from the jagged parts of ourselves that we usually attempt to ignore. This openness also means Harvey writes in the third person about other characters more than she had before, often from the perspective of vulnerable women: Angelene, Catherine, Leah, Joy and Elise each get their own song. They could all be facets of Polly as she sees herself, or even facets of us, the faceless mass to whom she bares her soul for a living. The album is an open wound willing to receive, not offering any direct solution, but wearing its pain as a sign of life in hopes that we’ll bare our souls back. For this brief moment, Polly Jean Harvey couldn’t get a grip on what was haunting her, so she started haunting us, and what came out of it was sheer magic.
Elise Soutar is a writer, musician, friend of witches, wannabe punk and annoying New Yorker. You can watch her share the same pictures of David Bowie over and over again on Twitter @moonagedemon.