If you’re a great artist, you’re going to be misunderstood. That’s all but guaranteed. Much depends, though, on the degree of your own complicity, your own attempts to evolve, wear masks, repudiate old passions and personnas. Much depends upon how often you “put on” others and then take those put-ons back.
Few musicians have undergone as many incarnations, in so short a time span, as Polly Jean Harvey, better known as PJ. She’s been a vamp, a tramp, a chanteuse, a rocker, a folky, a poet, a punk and a tease. Always with an edge, overt or covert, PJ Harvey won’t stand still and she won’t give in to the pressures that face all successful commercial musicians.
Born in Dorset, England, in 1969, Polly Jean was raised on a sheep farm, which is a bit unusual for a future Punk Noir goddess of the deep. Her parents, a stonemason and a sculptor — PJ is a sculptor in her own right — fed her a steady, eclectic diet of Blues, Rock and Jazz, which set the stage for her own encounters with an even wider range of music. In recent interviews, she’s discussed her exploration of classical music, especially Arvo Pärt, Henryk Górecki, Ralph Vaughan Williams and Samuel Barber. Her performances and albums reflect that diversity.
Her almost subterranean energy is phenomenal. I hear it in her guitar licks, her modulated vocals, and see it in her original videos. The complexity of human emotion filling up her music is haunting. She’s never boring, and never fails to surprise.
In this video, Harvey struts like a king of Rock ‘n’ Roll, and does it better than 99% of the best prancers in the biz. Her swagger, her cockiness, her strength break the rules and shatter ceilings.
I haven’t listened to all of her albums, but my favorite so far is Stories From the City, Stories From the Sea. New York comes to mind, along with Patti Smith in New York. But mostly, the sense of a tortured, dynamic soul, reacting to the night, reacting to the fragility of life with an in-your-face defiance that hurts.