PJ Harvey - B-Sides, Demos & Rarities Music Album Reviews

PJ Harvey - B-Sides, Demos & Rarities Music Album Reviews
PJ Harvey fans have waited a long time for this: a near-exhaustive collection of the singer’s non-album tracks and orphaned gems, many of which rival her classic album cuts.

You used to have to work so hard to be a stan: joining fan clubs, tracking down early EPs, downloading suspicious Megaupload links from message-board threads. Rarities were called that for a reason; they weren’t just served to you on a streaming platter. PJ Harvey, who long shied away from compilations and career retrospectives, never made it easy. Some of her best, most bracing material was exiled from her studio albums, but unless you were scouring eBay for the “C’mon Billy” CD single or seeking out the limited-edition Is This Desire? bonus disc, how would you have known? 

PJ Harvey fans have waited a long time for this: a centralized meeting point for the singer’s many non-album tracks and orphaned gems. Spanning from her early days, fiddling with a 4-track machine that mentor John Parish taught her to use, to her post-’90s reinventions as a pop-rock shapeshifter, antiwar provocateur-slash-autoharp connoisseur, and television composer, this remarkable, 59-song, six-LP compilation doubles as a shadow history of Harvey’s career, charting her metamorphoses through the songs that didn’t make the cut.

It also reveals the one constant—an unswerving intensity that distinguished Harvey from her imitators. On her early, blues-punk demos (there are just five Rid of Me demos here, presumably because the others already appeared on 1993’s 4-Track Demos), that intensity was channeled through Harvey’s voice, a searing, guttural moan of biblical proportions. Hear her weave in and out of falsetto on the wailing chorus of “Dry - Demo” or deadpan the sinister nursery-rhyme coda to “Man-Size - Demo,” and it’s clear that Harvey was a compelling solo artist well before her eponymous trio dissolved in 1993.

To Bring You My Love, Harvey’s extraordinary 1995 commercial breakthrough, was her first proper solo album. On its B-sides, you can hear the singer reveling in her new freedom and pushing to the outer limits of her sound. The hazily menacing “Lying in the Sun” and deeply eerie “Darling Be There” are studies in minimalism, pointing the way to Is This Desire? “Maniac,” meanwhile, plays like a “Down by the Water” understudy: theatrical and violent. Its distorted organ and drum loop represent one of Harvey’s first excursions into sheer groove, while its roaring vocal proves Harvey is the only Gen-X rocker who can yowl come-ons like “I neeeeeed a man/To make me moan/To make me bad” without the faintest wink of irony. 

Around 1997, while demoing “My Beautiful Leah,” an exhausted Harvey recoiled in shock at the grotesque darkness of her own writing. She fell into crisis, and considered abandoning music to become a nurse. Instead, after seeking therapy, she completed 1998’s Is This Desire?, her most goth album, a masterpiece of mood if you approach it in the right space. On Desire, Harvey channeled her isolation into noirish trip-hop, ghostly minimalism, and third-person character studies; its paradox has always been that this is Harvey’s most character-driven work, an album populated by lost, broken women with names like Joy, Catherine, or Leah, and yet she has described it as being “about myself.”

Nocturnal and haunted, these B-sides rank among the most stunning of her career. “The Northwood” is a macabre vignette chiseled from warped, deliberately out-of-sync vocal takes, perhaps a nod to Harvey’s Captain Beefheart obsession. “Sweeter Than Anything” is yearning and nostalgic, a lost-love story whose details, like the flickering guitar layers, are an impressionistic blur of sadness. 

Is This Desire? was a stark departure from Harvey’s prior work, but would have been even more so had the keening reverie “Nina in Ecstasy 2” made the cut (producer John Parish wishes it were track one). Sung in a girlish falsetto, with just the gentle hum of a Yamaha QY20 sequencer for accompaniment, the song both hints at Harvey’s White Chalk-era vocal shift and encapsulates the lonely desperation of Desire: “‘Nina in Ecstasy’ sounds like a porn film, maybe it was, but my Nina is also a lovely, sad, lost lady looking for her mum,” Harvey has explained.

If Is This Desire? left you (ahem) dry, chances are you found comfort in the lovestruck glamour of 2000’s Stories From the City, Stories From the Sea, probably the best New York album ever made by a Brit. On this widely hailed, platinum-selling release, the singer does not groan or shriek; she glides and floats, and swoons over the sensual pleasures of watching a lover undress. Harvey, now channeling Chrissie Hynde more than Captain Beefheart, never sounded happier, or more suited to your parents’ five-disc changer. 

In this case, the B-sides complicate the popular narrative, revealing that the same sessions yielded plenty of depressive downers that Harvey discarded in pursuit of a (relatively) upbeat pop album. The ominous “This Wicked Tongue” is a slow-burning explosion, while “Memphis” is a stirring tribute to Jeff Buckley. Harvey had received a happy letter from the singer the week before his death and wrote the song in response to the tragic news: “Oh, what a way to go/I know that you’re smiling,” she sings hopefully.

Buckley was 30 when he died. Harvey was the same age when she recorded Stories, and penned a cryptic reflection in the form of “30.” If “Memphis” retains some of the lush production of Stories—jangling guitar, soaring backing vocals—the same cannot be said of “30,” which is brooding and spare; the song recalls the unsettled quiet of Is This Desire?, while “Kick It to the Ground” hearkens back to the bleeding, raw vocal takes of her early demos. You can understand why these tracks were orphaned from their parent album. 

Harvey was uninterested in pandering to new fans wooed by Stories From the City, Stories From the Sea’s impression of a radio-friendly rock star. It would be nearly four years before a follow-up arrived; eventually, the singer emerged with Uh Huh Her, her most insular and haphazard record, and the only one she produced entirely herself. Though Harvey is mum about her private life, Uh Huh Her is also her most overt breakup album, journeying from bitterness (“The Life and Death of Mr. Badmouth”) to melancholy acceptance (“The Darker Days of Me & Him”). 

Once frustrated by its demo-like sketchiness, I’ve grown to love the album’s ragged intimacy and subtle shifts in mood. But the B-sides—previously collected on a limited-edition 2004 compilation—are considerably weaker, veering toward self-pity. “The Phone Song” and “Stone” particularly rank among Harvey’s most plodding and heavy-handed compositions, while demo versions of “Cat on the Wall” and “You Come Through” are too similar to their album equivalents to justify inclusion. On the bright side, we get the fuzzed-up “97º” (a reworking of the “Cat on the Wall” riff), the Dylan-quoting “Dance,” and the gnarled “Uh Huh Her.” Orphaned from the album of the same name, it became an incendiary standout on her 2004 tour, Harvey’s moans of “Reeee-jection!” snuffing out the last flickering embers of Stories’ infatuation.

That tour was the last hurrah for PJ Harvey, alt-rock queen. On 2007’s White Chalk—one of her most overlooked albums—she swore off electric guitar and yowling blues entirely. Ghostly and gothic, its spare sound centered around childlike piano figures, White Chalk divided fans. In retrospect, it’s the album that ushered in the fourth era of Harvey’s career, a period defined by nontraditional instrumentation, a high, keening vocal register, and lyrics that emphasize literary or sociopolitical concerns.

Even on this compilation, White Chalk is a kind of ghost: its presence sensed but unheard. That’s because the White Chalk era produced mysteriously few non-album tracks. Instead, Harvey issued long-stowed-away material from her earliest recording sessions: “Wait” (“one of my first songs ever written”) and “Heaven,” both recorded in 1988, when Harvey was a teenager in the group Automatic Dlamini. Both are pleasant, uncharacteristically chirpy English folk tunes, with little hint of the powerful erotic charge to come on Dry and Rid of Me. Their non-chronological inclusion here may bewilder fans who assume them to have been recorded circa 2007.

Yet a certain disregard for chronology suits Harvey. As the new century wore on, her muse seemed to drift almost a hundred years into the past, to World War I. As peers like Björk and Nick Cave embraced icy synths and ambient electronica, Harvey was drawn to autoharps and zithers, saxophones and trombones. Once again, she threw away her established tools. The result was 2011’s Let England Shake, one of the more peculiar antiwar albums, and a successful one, earning the singer her second Mercury Prize. 

So distinctive is Let England Shake in sound and approach that “The Big Guns Called Me Back Again” and “The Nightingale” could have come from no other corner of Harvey’s discography. The odd, ringing thwack of the autoharp; the ambling rhythms; the communal tapestry of backing vocals—these are the giveaways. That, of course, and the lyrics, which contrast war’s pageantry with its brutality. In “The Nightingale,” Harvey embodies the naiveté of a soldier seduced by the glory of his mission and comforted by a nightingale’s call: “Every one of us will go to Paradise/He sang to the soldiers day and night.” 

While Let England Shake surveyed the conflicts that shaped England in the 20th century, The Hope Six Demolition Project found Harvey—now working as a kind of journalist/poet—turning her gaze to the violence and unrest of the present. Drawing heavily on research trips to Afghanistan, Kosovo, and Washington, D.C., she created a travelogue album, pulling England’s eclectic instrumentation into a bluesy rock fusion. Often criticized for its noncommittal remove, the 2016 album is not one of Harvey’s best; songs like “The Community of Hope” enumerate notebook observations of poverty and economic neglect, but offer little in the way of conclusion or emotional catharsis. There’s an unshakeable “Ok, and?” quality to the writing. 

Alas, as this compilation reveals, Harvey omitted some of her most purposeful protest songs from the album proper. The deceptively jaunty “Guilty” indicts the judgment of a drone operator squinting at suspects on a screen, all of whom “must be guilty,” Harvey repeats, as handclaps and saxophone blurts cheer on the spectacle of remote-controlled death. “The Camp,” a stirring 2017 collaboration with Egyptian singer Ramy Essam, is equally topical: an evocative plea for children displaced by the refugee crisis in Lebanon.  

B-Sides, Demos & Rarities loses some of its urgency towards the end. Since 2017, Harvey has retreated from the album and touring cycle, focusing on scoring for television and stage and publishing a book-length poem called Orlam. The last five songs here chronicle her scoring work. There’s an eerie cover of the folk traditional “An Acre of Land”; several piano demos of songs Harvey wrote for the 2019 stage adaptation of All About Eve, which she scored; and, from the Peaky Blinders soundtrack, a surprisingly milquetoast cover of a certain song by Harvey’s most famous ex. All curiosities of interest to hardcore fans, but nothing that summons the fire or spikiness of her own records.

The box set ends here, but, happily, Harvey’s career does not. According to a Guardian interview, Harvey will release a new studio album—her first in seven years—in 2023. I can think of no presently active major-label artist whose fans have less of an idea what her new album will sound like or what dark obsessions it will entail. That may be a function of Harvey’s propensity for secrecy, but it also reflects how profoundly her career has been shaped by surprising left turns. When we speak of pop chameleons—David Bowie, Beck—why not PJ Harvey? 

Harvey has never settled. She has never released a staid or unsurprising album in her life. She has always favored uncompromising gestures. Like the tormented narrator of “To Bring You My Love,” she has lain with the devil and cursed God above. And here, scattered across these six LPs, is a surplus of proof.
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About Wanni Arachchige Udara Madusanka Perera

Hey, I'm Perera! I will try to give you technology reviews(mobile,gadgets,smart watch & other technology things), Automobiles, News and entertainment for built up your knowledge.
PJ Harvey - B-Sides, Demos & Rarities Music Album Reviews PJ Harvey - B-Sides, Demos & Rarities Music Album Reviews Reviewed by Wanni Arachchige Udara Madusanka Perera on January 14, 2023 Rating: 5


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