A tough listen, even at its comparative prettiest, but an essential one.
Mike Diver 2009-10-09
Polly Jean Harvey’s biggest albums may have followed in its wake – 1995’s To Bring You My Love was a year-end number one almost across the board, and 2000’s Stories From the City, Stories From the Sea was an overdue Mercury Prize triumph – but this striking second LP remains one of the Dorset-born singer’s most-loved releases.
But it’s an awkward record to pour one’s affections over; a snarling affair that barks and lashes out like a beast cornered. The artwork is striking, an apparently topless Harvey flicking a head of entrails-alike hair from, presumably, a bathroom body of water, and the music contained within the packaging is equally as memorable. Largely recorded alongside celebrated engineer Steve Albini, who allows each compositional element space to flex and flail, it’s a collection of songs so close to the bone of subject matter that to cut them would simply blunt the blade.
Amazingly, Rid of Me represented Harvey’s first album for a major label – nowadays, such a risk on a relatively underground artist, whose material is hardly suited to significant radio rotation, is unheard of. But Island’s confidence in their new signing was vindicated when Rid of Me debuted at three on the domestic albums chart, paving the way for Harvey’s future albums to become hits. Also, her rising profile enabled a handful of angst-ridden female songwriters to emerge to prominence, not least Canadian vocalist Alanis Morrissette, whose worldwide smash Jagged Little Pill took its share of cues from Harvey’s bare-all performances.
From which Man-Size Sextet – the one track not recorded with Albini – and 50ft Queenie were selected as singles, though neither possesses the attractive warmth of later cuts like Down By the Water and Good Fortune. But that’s the point, really: Rid of Me isn’t intended as an easy listen. It’s a deeply personal experience, one that presents lyrical catharsis to the fore beside barren arrangements (the album was the last to feature the trio of Harvey, Rob Ellis and Steven Vaughan) to stir the soul like few records of its kind. Even several years on, Harvey’s much-imitated style sounds remarkably fresh, her passion complemented by some enthrallingly naked musicianship.
A tough listen then, even at its comparative prettiest, but an essential one that demands your attention from beginning to end.