A little over ten years ago, Polly Jean Harvey, a sheep farm-raised Brit with a twisted sense of intimacy, spent six months in New York City. She had already released three proper records after her 1992 debut, Dry. Now, whatever happened to her there, during her time in the Big Apple, is something I dream about. She smoked cigarettes on rooftops, she had brief love affairs that resonated with dark repercussions, and she made one of the most stirring rock records of our time with 2000’s Stories from the City, Stories from the Sea.
It’s funny. It’s like this with several of rock’s most defining musicians for me: there’s that one album in his or her discography that I become fixated on. It inspires me and, in fact, I don’t want much of the artist’s other work to color my unbridled adoration of that certain moment in his/her creative lives. Stories is a masterpiece. It’s got it all: reflective ballads, poppy anthems, and balls-to-the-wall thrashers.
Absolutely nothing compares to Kamikaze, a two-and-a-half minute-experiment in catharsis. What starts out as mild and restrained turns into one of the most exciting series of yelps in female punk music. The opener, Big Exit, sets the tone with Harvey’s insistent play on the theme of a dangerous woman screaming for a gun with apocalyptic notions of doom: I’m scared baby!/I wanna run!/This one’s crazy/give me the gun, she howls… and you really do get the feeling that this woman is nearly mad. Just batshit crazy enough to be one of the most badass lady rockers of all time.
Right in the middle of the record you get the mind-blowing duo of This Mess We’re In, a duet with Thom Yorke, and the achingly beautiful You Said Something. It’s here that the whole picture of where this record comes from starts to come together. On a rooftop in Brooklyn/one in the morning/watching the lights flash in Manhattan is the opening lyric which puts your right there next to her. Harvey’s imagery, the details, her tone, it’s just all so powerful. Her songs are pungent, and the coolest thing about this record, especially when you’ve listened to it enough to pick up on all its hidden moments of darkness, is that you feel like you’ve lived it with her. Harvey pulls you in and makes you feel the agony of life and living it with needs, desires, and emotions. The lyrics on this album are so painfully raw. You almost want to wince at the stuff she’s willing to spill. But it’s all part of the package. Until Harvey came along, we all wondered how deep and creepy a female punk could get behind a mic and a guitar. Now we know–there is no limit to an impassioned, talented and powerful woman. And if you cross her path, you better be ready for the consequences.