I’ve always found something really attractive about PJ Harvey. To be fair, I’ve always had a soft spot for women with a bit of attitude; it sounds lame, but there’s just something fascinating about it: a typically masculine characteristic of aggression funnelled through the traditionally soft veneer of femininity. It seems that in everyday circumstance we are either blind to it in its subtle guises, or unnerved and rattled through its forceful manifestation in ‘militant feminism’. A masculine girl is treated as something undesirable, alien and subversive – but although ***ing with gender may be uncomfortable for some, it is interesting in how it challenges preconceived notions of what men and women ‘should’ be. It’s this androgyny that PJ Harvey seems to toy with, and is ultimately what makes 'Dry' such engrossing and compelling listening.
When I watch interviews with Polly Jean, it’s often hard to imagine how this elfin beauty, diffident and stepped in modesty, can produce a sound so powerfully raw, deep, and masculine. The guitars on 'Dry' are often thick and lacerating, combining with heavy rhythms and stark, scratchy strings. From the outset, it’s clear there is an ironic bent to some of her songs. On initial listening, it sounds as if 'O My Lover' is a submissive plea to another half of an imbalanced relationship. But there is something in the way she sings that seems to make it disingenuous, as if to mock the stereotype of the love sick girl hopelessly trying to please her man. The lines, “Oh my sweet thing/Oh my honey thighs”, in the context of the song seem out of place somehow – almost too sweet and forgiving. Yet this derisive tone appears to subside as the song progresses, and it seemingly becomes increasingly sincere. I can never really decide: perhaps it reflects both the pathetic and the unavoidably heartfelt, yet irrationally blind, nature of such a relationship.
Elsewhere the sarcastic sentiment is more overt, such as on 'Sheela-na-gig', which is, in my opinion, one of the album’s strongest tracks. Beginning with the lines, “Look at these my child bearing hips/Look at these my ruby red ruby lips” any ambiguity is laid swiftly to rest, especially in the cheeky manner in which they are sung. This, combined with the symbolism of Sheela-na-gig (a Celtic female Goddess typically portrayed in carvings with exaggerated genetalia) playfully portrays the power of female fertility and rampant sexuality. Once again, although he apparently indulges, rejection is the response from the proposed lover: “He said “wash your breasts, I don’t want to be unclean”/He said “please take those dirty pillows away from me””. The whole affair is set to a driving rhythm with a dirty and growling guitar sound, that midway through the song, morphs into this hazy lead and seems to rise from the grit and permeate out. It has this amazing anthemic yet ethereal feel to it, as if it would echo and float to all corners, radiating from the main body of the song. It’s at base about ***ing, and then the guilt about ***ing. The ‘uncleanliness’ apparently resulting from relations with a sexual and predatory women. She’s wild, out of control and raw, opposed to the traditionally tamed and deferent paradigm of the ‘good wife’.
Admittedly, it’s easy to overmilk the lyrics in 'Dry', but it’s hard not to read into them when they seem to be crafted so intelligently and littered with metaphor. I was quite surprised when Polly Jean admitted apathy with regard to Feminism, and attested to generally being apolitical - mainly because of her admission to not fully understanding the nature of Feminism and the ‘baggage’ that came with it. But despite these explicit rebuttals of political engagement, I still believe they should be taken with a certain degree of caution: there’s just too much seemingly blatant referencing. If she doesn’t endorse a political movement she certainly seems to skirt with the issues; perhaps a tactful reservation against blanket labelling- ironically what i'm trying to do - touché.
But how else can you begin to define such an enigma, even her sound cannot be simply categorised. It’s like she’s taken blues harmonies and filtered them through some industrial furnace, forging her melodies with a dirty layer of scuzz and sweat. The rhythm section is no clean cut gem either, its often dark, powerful and almost tribal, with a consistent use of tom fills to generate an interestingly hollow addition to the burgeoning bass. The great thing, though, is that it’s not just the punk ferocity that takes the cake. One of my favourite sequences on this album is the transition from 'Joe' to 'Plants and Rags', and then to 'Fountain'. The first is probably the most intense song on Dry. With a rapid and rumbling guitar section, it drives the song at an insisting pace throwing in wails of feedback and distortion along the way. The energy and sheer sound is overwhelming, which is what makes the transition into 'Plants and Rags' such a highlight. Compared to 'Joe' it is so stripped down and organic, from the distant foot tapping keeping time, to the bare and moving acoustic introduction. It sounds so pure and innocent. The almost infantile lines, “I dreamt of a man/He gave fed me fine food/He gave me shiny things” are complemented by a playful, darting set of strings. But this is only one side to this schizophrenic oddity, as thick and jarring cello lurches disrupt the serenity of the introduction quite forcefully. It sounds so out of place and destructive, seeming to emphasise a darker undertone to the song. These two faces wax and wane, melting into each other as if they battle for the dominant persona. It makes the re-emergence of each verse beautifully victorious, before both combine into an increasingly dissonant coda. 'Fountain' explores more dark caverns with a menacing bass lick and subdued and steady guitar chops. From all of this darkness erupt bursts of energy and a wonderful lead up to the final segment, as out of the languorous, non-sensical chanting she soars up: “Out of the blue/It is he/Vision to me/Bearing leaves” - it comes out of nowhere and captures your attention immediately.
It’s probably obvious that I think this album is pretty good, although it’s not faultless. Some of the song structures can at times seem slightly formulaic, using a steady, looping rhythm and a loud/soft dynamic as a base model, like on 'Hair' and 'Water'. Furthermore, although the latter song is not necessarily bad -especially with its interesting 5/4 timing-, it seems too similar in structure to 'Fountain', making it an odd choice to follow. But aside from these minor scratches, I was generally blown away by a lot of the material on this album. It’s passionate and heartfelt, and it’ll blast and caress you in equal measures.