PJ Harvey has brazenly defied industry expectations throughout her 25-year-plus music career. The English musician has boldly morphed from a 50 ft. queenie to a strutting Vegas-style lounge singer to a hushed, fragile soul-stirrer. Her songs sting, soothe, and heal in equal measure.
For her ninth album, Harvey's career full of risk-taking artistry has yet another exciting development. She and her band -- along with longtime producers Flood and John Parish -- will discuss, play, and record her new material behind a glass box in full view of the public at the Somerset House in London. Recording in Progress combines composition, studio art, performance, and observation, proving yet again that she is rock's most fearless musician. Here are the brave steps she's taken up to this point.
When Grunge Ruled, She Looked the Other Way
The gritty, self-assured stomp of Harvey's first two records arrived like a thunderbolt amid the male-dominated grunge squall of the early '90s. The raw, untamed guitars and piercing wails of Dry and Rid of Me were absolutely flooring.
Rather than capitalizing on the grunge hype like her compatriots in Bush and Radiohead (Pablo Honey comes specifically to mind), Harvey's early albums weren't a pale, hackneyed version of the trends of the times. The spare instrumentation and minimalist production throughout her first two records were the perfect musical foil to the often overwrought hits of the era, while Harvey's keen, trenchant lyrics complemented her inspired guitar work. Without the gloomy sonic bombast of her cohorts across the pond, her music instead gave voice to a more refined type of angst.
When Her Work Got Noticed, She Pivoted
Polly took her craft to a more polished level on her breakthrough smash, To Bring You My Love. Much of the record stood in stark contrast to the angular immediacy of her earlier work, with John Parish's subtle guitar parts adding to the textured din, with strings, chimes, and an organ filling out the sound. Flood's production brought with it a richer, layered sound, but Harvey managed to rattle the cages of conformity all the same, especially on "Long Snake Moan," the Captain Beefhart-echoing jam "Meet Ze Monsta," and the MTV sensation "Down By the Water." These songs bristled with the forceful confidence of an artist truly coming into her own, with Harvey never showing any fear that a new direction might be the wrong one.
Radiohead's drastic shifts in tone over the years are widely praised, but Harvey has been far more adventurous. There are common threads that link the seething energy of her early 4-track demo days to the lush, elegant expanse of her mid-'90s output along with the pensive, serene quality of her later work. But without the luxury of following along with her dynamic career trajectory, a new listener would be hard-pressed to link those fiery, incisive early songs and the piano and autoharp-laden modern sounds to the same artist.
Each radical sonic leap has also been accompanied by a Bowie-like change of fashion that plays up the style of her sound to the hilt. Harvey has seamlessly transformed herself from art-school vagabond to a ball-gown velvet maiden to a Midsummer Night's Dream-like apparition, and finally, with Recording in Progress, to a living, breathing art exhibit of entirely her own devising. And you think going from OK Computer to Kid A was a dramatic leap. Please. Let me know when Radiohead is setting up shop at the Tate.
Difficult Subject Matter Has Never Scared Her
Her Mercury Prize-winning 2000 album, Stories From the City, Stories From the Sea began as an affectionate ode to New York City, but took on an added resonance following the 9/11 attacks. When Harvey found out she won the Mercury Prize she was on tour in Washington, D.C. on that fateful day, and could see the clouds of smoke emanating from the rubble of the Pentagon from outside her window. The love letter had become an elegy -- smoldering paeans to something lost and never to fully be regained.
With 2011's Let England Shake, Harvey tackled life in wartime head on. Those achingly beautiful songs offer up a reflective, post-war wisdom as Harvey drew inspiration from researching the Dardanelles Campaign in World War I, along with firsthand accounts of the bloodshed in Afghanistan and Iraq. Haunting numbers like "The Last Living Rose," "The Words That Maketh Murder," and "The Colour of the Earth" exemplified the eternal anguish of conflict while fighting raged around the globe. "War is here in our beloved city," indeed. From the very start, Harvey has never shied away from speaking the truth -- about love, life, death, and war -- with whatever voice she deems necessary to be heard.
She Wasn't Afraid to Put Her Guitar Away
For her delicate and spare 2007 album, White Chalk, Harvey challenged herself by composing many of the songs on the piano, an instrument she was just becoming familiar with at the time. As she told Pitchfork following the release of that record: "I really hadn't played before two and a half years ago, and I'm a complete novice, still. But I found it enormously freeing, really, to be on an instrument that I don't know anything about and has no rules. I don't really know what I'm doing, but at the same moment, that enabled me to travel in all these areas I'd never have reached before..."
Harvey fearlessly offered up hushed, elegiac prayers over subtle, diaphanous arrangements. She also sang in a higher register than normal, giving the songs an added frailty. "The Devil," "When Under Ether," and "Silence" are all relentlessly bleak and insular, with Harvey seemingly learning how to make her minimal, percussive piano strains fit best within these isolated tracks. On White Chalk, Harvey courageously immersed herself within a new instrument, and while those experiments didn't always work, the fact that she was still challenging herself musically while sharing those unsteady results with her audience gave the numbers an audacity that ultimately spoke volumes. Most musicians wouldn't dare try for fear of appearing less than perfect in front of their fans. But PJ Harvey isn't like most musicians, of course.
Harvey Is Putting Her Creative Process On Display
What she has in store for Recording in Progress is anyone's guess, really. Ideally, each 45-minute tour can witness firsthand what Harvey's recording process is truly like, unfiltered. The Somerset House bills the experience as "a mutating, multidimensional sound sculpture," and even if the results never achieve those grandiose, transcendent ideals, the mere fact that Harvey and her band are willing to let their fans share in their private creative process is enough to pique the music world's attention while solidifying Harvey's status as a musical pioneer with few equals.
Most musicians don't let their audience ever hear their work until it sounds precisely how they want it to, but Harvey is undaunted. Removing the barriers ups the intimacy her material is already famous for even further. This exhibit could serve as the only time that PJ Harvey will fit into a nice, tidy little box, but that won't stop her from thinking outside of it.
PJ Harvey's Recording in Progress runs from January 16 to February 14. Tickets sold out immediately.
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