No Pretty Polly
Even at the height of the 'Women in Rock' novelty of the early-'90s, when any guitar-slinger in a dress was stuck provocatively on the front of glossy mags, PJ Harvey never felt like a player in such a degrading farce. She was fierce, she was tough, she was unapologetically sexual, but Harvey was never cut from the same cloth as Liz Phair or Courtney Love. She was English. She was intellectual. She was elusive where others were compulsive; allowing her music to be forthcoming whilst she remained a step away.
Subsequent years have revealed what many suspected of Polly Jean when she arose from the misty moors of Dorset with 1992's instant-classic LP Dry: that she's a successor to Patti Smith and Nick Cave in the annals of the rocker-as-poet. Not poet in that drunken, debauched sense, but as a thinker, an artist, as someone conversant in important historical texts, whose work owes more to literature and myth than confessionalism and self-flagellation.
Subsequent albums have found Harvey working in increasingly orchestral, classical, even experimental shades. Camps tend to be divided between those who appreciate her more atmospheric, desolate works (like 1998's awe-inspiring Is This Desire?, clearly her most fearless work, and 2007's White Chalk) and those drawn to her more raw, rocking, boisterous LPs (like 1993's Steve Albini-produced Rid of Me, and 2000's Mercury-winning Stories from the City, Stories from the Sea).
And rock is where Dry comes in. Harvey had cut her teeth writing more folk-influenced songs, but as the '80s turned to the '90s, she discovered The Pixies, Slint, and Sonic Youth. By the time she got to recording her debut, the 22-year-old was playing guitar whose thick, distorted tone sounded verily guttural; and, from her listening habits, she'd learnt the glories of quiet/loud dynamics. Settling into a rock-trio mode with bassist Stephen Vaughan and drummer/producer Robert Ellis, Harvey was playing a kind of electric blues powered by booming bass, cymbal-battering percussion, scrapes of cello and double-bass, scorched guitar noise, and lyrics exploring the notions of female shame imposed from the bible on down.
Yet, more than its sound or words, or even the gender of its charge, the most remarkable things about Dry is just how many great songs it has. It begins with Harvey's first-ever single, "Dress," which barrels along with lyrics cautioning ladies about dressing-to-please. Then there's the anthemic "Sheela Na Gig," which sounds every bit as era-defining and hit-worthy as "Smells Like Teen Spirit," in hindsight, and the equally as dynamic-shifting/fist-pumping "O Stella," an ode to a painting hanging in a pub.
The set closes with perhaps its best song, "Water," a slinky, loping song that coils and uncoils, sounding either laconic or incredibly tense depending on your mood. Lyrically, "Water"'s a pseudo-Silvia-Plath-suicide-note that evokes Greek myth and Biblical parable in a stark take on the idea of water as cleansing; on the notion of washing away one's sins.
Listened with the clarity of years on, Dry is far from perfect. It sounds, at times, a prisoner of its era; like it'd be more interesting to hear how these songs existed when removed from the fuzzy fury and claggy mixing of the early-'90s. But, an artist only makes their debut once, and Dry shall forever be remembered as the record that introduced the world to one Polly Jean Harvey. Given how rarely talents this frightening arrive, it's no surprise the first PJ Harvey record is still received with such reverence.
Record Label: Too Pure
Release Date: 30 June, 1992