Photo by Maria Mochnacz
By Erik Thompson
For a Midwestern college kid raised on classic rock radio, MTV, and vinyl hand-me-downs from my older sisters, the sound of PJ Harvey arrived like a howling musical whirlwind in the early ‘90s. Even though I was a devout disciple of grunge who came of age during the transformational dawn of Lollapalooza, I still had never heard anything quite like Harvey before.
PJ Harvey’s early sound was so raw, unfiltered, and fucking furious. Harvey’s music pummeled its way into the agitated, angst-filled heart of this 20-year-old who was angry at so much of the world at the time, even though I had seen so little of it.
With the long overdue vinyl and CD reissues of PJ Harvey’s out-of-print back catalog over the past year, her volatile, groundbreaking music is finding a younger generation of new listeners who prefer to hear music on their turntables and home stereos instead of on streaming services. The reissues also reinforce Harvey’s significant place within the indie rock canon to older fans who have been with her straight from the start, yet never had the pleasure of spinning her early albums on vinyl due to the steep price of original pressings online.
For those who are solely familiar with the hushed elegance of Harvey’s recent work, the untamed urgency of her early albums will come as a shock. The fragile, subdued examinations of the ills of society -- both past and present -- that permeates Harvey’s modern output (The Hope Six Demolition Project, Let England Shake, and White Chalk) reflects an artist searching for creative clarity and cultural understanding in a wounded, fractured world.
Harvey also personally challenged herself on these albums by writing songs on instruments that she wasn’t proficient on, playing piano, harp, autoharp, harmonica, zither, and saxophones in the recording studio to test her musical boundaries. That creative experimentation injects Harvey’s recent work with a cautious, tender sensitivity, which stands starkly at odds with the fierce aggression of her early records (Dry, Rid of Me, and 4-Track Demos) and the poetic splendor and stylish charm of her celebrated mid-career albums (To Bring You My Love, Is This Desire?, and Stories From the City, Stories From the Sea).
Photo by Maria Mochnacz
In addition to the reissues of her studio albums, Harvey has also generously been sharing vinyl pressings of stripped down demo recordings from each of her earlier records. Drawing inspiration from her treasured 4-Track Demos album in 1993, which featured intimate, self-produced recordings of songs that were featured on Rid Of Me, Harvey is once again pulling back the creative curtain to allow fans to hear the artistic evolution of her work. It is a revelation to hear these familiar songs in an entirely new way, without the sonic enhancements of Harvey’s stellar series of producers -- Steve Albini, Head, Flood, Rob Ellis, John Parish, Mick Harvey -- that she’s worked with over the years.
In a 2004 interview with Filter, Harvey discussed the inspiration behind releasing 4-Track Demos originally, an unguarded creative process that she continues to share with her fans to this day.
“4-Track Demos... was partly encouraged by Steve Albini. He loved the demos for that album so much he thought they should be out there and I tended to agree with him. It seemed like showing another side of what I do and introducing new songs that I hadn't recorded on a record. It was a lovely thing to do and it felt like the right time because my three-piece band had fallen apart and I was kind of in limbo before deciding where I was gonna be going again. So, it was just like a small interjection piece of me before I knew where I was going to be next."
Where PJ Harvey goes next is anyone’s guess, and they are most likely to be wrong. Harvey has brazenly and boldly forged her own distinctive path in the music industry throughout her entire career, making up her own unique rules as she goes along. But while she is taking this well earned moment to look back at her distinguished past by re-releasing her early work and sharing the demos from those sessions, it is once again made clear that PJ Harvey is a singular, pioneering musician who is worthy of both adoration and accolades, as well as continual rediscovery by longtime fans and new listeners alike.