You can’t really read this picture; you can’t read PJ Harvey’s music any more clearly. The dynamics of their music promise everything. The from-a-whisper-to-a-scream arrangements on a number of the tunes—including the title song, the first cut—is old stuff, but perhaps with the help of producer Steve Albini the trick is played with such intensity the shift sounds new every time. The music relies a lot on chanting, on repetition, as if in an attempt to get past words to the fears and lusts they merely signify, to get to the desires words hide more than reveal—but here the edge dulls, and too often you hear only a straining for effect. What’s more alive in the music is what you might glimpse in the picture of Medicine Suite: the urge of secrets to go public.The photo of Medicine Suite may have been taken when the band was onstage, but the setting feels more like a basement with the door locked. The power in Rid of Me is in that same basement confinement, the scary, desperate claustrophobia of the sound. Some songs—“50 Ft. Queenie,” “Man-Size”—seem meant to suck the air right out of the room; heard in the right (or wrong) mood, they can very nearly suck it out of yours. The scratchy, keening cry at the end of “Rid of Me” (“Lick my legs/I’m on fire”—it’s Robert Ellis singing, but there’s no gender in his voice, no reason to think it isn’t Polly Harvey) is like the plea of a captive trying to crawl under the door. At its best the music is so extreme—not in its form, but in its force, in its demands—that perhaps it’s simply easier to think of the band locked in a room instead of setting up in the public square. “Douse hair with gas-o-line,” Harvey says to seal the two versions of “Man-Size” on Rid of Me (the first, “Man-Size Sextet,” with Harvey on cello and viola). As the line echoes back and forth across the album, the suggestion is that what’s happening in the public square is not a band setting up but a witch being burned.Still, there’s an ultimate vagueness in Rid of Me—a blank that can’t be explained away simply by noting that the record features too much hectoring without enough melody. “I’d like to put it all across in music and not have any words at all,” Polly Harvey recently told Katherine Dieckmann in Musician, but words are the problem, and the Rid of Me version of Bob Dylan’s “Highway 61 Revisited” shows how. Here, in a cover of a tune a good five years older than the twenty-three-year-old Harvey, the music instantly achieves a kind of life it displays nowhere else. It’s one of Dylan’s most sardonic, perfectly written (or perfectly tossed-off) numbers: as he sings or as Harvey does, “Poor Howard,” “Georgia Sam,” “Louie the King,” “Mack the Finger,” “the fifth daughter on the twelfth night,” and everyone else in the song appear as real people with real motives—helpless, malevolent, dangerous, pathetic, in real trouble. There are no characters as real anywhere else on Rid of Me. Save for the insistently self-creating persona of “PJ Harvey”—which is not a character, exactly—there’s no one you can talk to, and in a way no one who’s talking to you. The others to whom so many of the songs are addressed—or aimed—are just that: others, reflections of the singer, less lovers or enemies than specters.
So Rid of Me never does get out of its basement. It has its pull, though; you can’t ignore it. And sooner or later Polly Harvey will go public. That event won’t divide people within themselves. Some will rush forward. Others may turn and run.
Interview, August 1993 (Date TBD)