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Review: PJ Harvey classic album 'Rid of Me' Turns 24

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PJ Harvey's fantastic album "Rid of Me" was released on this day in 1993

Rid of Me is one of two awesome albums from 1993 helmed by Steve Albini, a big name producer with an indie sensibility (the other of course being Nirvana's In Utero). Here's my thing about hi-fi recording techniques: Clarity in recording is constantly being redefined, just like CGI in a movie. It's always better in the here and now, but in a few years it'll be dated. I'm always amazed by how lifeless a lot of late '90s rock bands sound now, having gone through a musical baptism in high school. Plenty has been written about how bad a lot of '80s big money productions sound; the vocals are always pushed too high in the mix, the music is always buried and mutilated and oversimplified, and the result is something that sounds nothing like a live band (and I prize live performance). But not enough people talk about the loudness wars, about the way some '90s records have no dynamics whatsoever.

Polly Jean Harvey (better known by her androgynous stage name, PJ Harvey) has been making music since 1992. She started out as an angry girl who spun out words that a lot of singers at that time wouldn't have dared. Songs about sex were frequent contenders, and it was almost never in a nice or sweet way ("You leave me dry!" she yelps on one of her earliest numbers, "Dry"). Despite this, Harvey rose to meet great success, releasing album after album to great reviews and phenomenal fan support.

Her first three albums, Dry, Rid of Me, and To Bring You My Love, (all released in a short four-year period from 1992 to 1995) were and still are highly regarded and heavily praised. And for good reason. Harvey exuded a confidence, with a voice that told us she was the boss. She was a woman in the music business, but stronger than most, and stronger than a few wanted her to be. Her debut Dry was a raw, carnal exploration of everything from slightly frightful sex ("Happy and Bleeding") to utter blissfulness ("Water"). However, her 1993 sophomore album, Rid of Me, is truly her finest work, and shows each integral side Harvey has to offer in one neatly wrapped 50-minute package.

 

 

The first five songs are nearly perfect. Opener "Rid of Me," one of her trademark songs, is one of the best she's ever recorded. With topsy turvey production values, it goes from quiet acoustic playing and a voice barely above of sneering whisper, to a noisy clamorous rocker. On first listen, the shift is completely unexpected, and on repeat listens, you feel the kinetic energy building, just waiting for the break. The tension this song raises is never recaptured. This doesn't mean the rest of the record is bad though...

"Missed" and "Legs" follow the opener, with greatness. "Missed" is one of the more accessible songs, with Harvey's pleading growing a little more insistent over the course of the song. It ends on a dime, leading in the wails and cries of the desperation of "Legs," which contains the great closing line, "I might as well be dead / But I could kill you instead!" This line does a good job of representing how confident and strong the woman belting these tunes out is. There's a power in her voice, which is far from perfect, by the way. The way it careens up and down and swerves into all the right places is what renders it so fantastic, as on the acidic Adam and Eve-inspired "Snake," where she begs for Adam to forgive her, claiming "the snake / put it / in front / of me," the staccato delivery (which is used more than once) enhancing the impact.

Things trip up slightly with"Man Size Sextet" and "Highway '61 Resvisted," the former being an oddly placed string-sextet version of a later highlight, and the latter being an ineffective and uncompelling cover of a Bob Dylan song. She has such a strength elsewhere, that is just baffles me as to why there's a cover song in the midst of her personal madness. These songs are listenable, and hardly apt for skipping, but, luckily, they're also back-to-back, and only sandwiched by the greatness of the other tunes, like the rollicking and powerful "50 ft Queenie," which was the album's first single. The chorus at the end repeats 4 times, increasing her size each time ("You come measure me / I'm 20 inches long" and it eventually grows to the titular number.)

 

This album isn't devoid of sexuality, either. The conclusion of the opening track has a nearly-breathless and enraged Harvey in falsetto, shrieking "Lick my legs, I'm on fire / Lick my legs of desire!" It's an awkward moment, portrayed as it should be. "Dry" (which is the title track of her first album, but for one reason or another didn't get put on a record until her second release) is a pleading, slightly upsetting song that appears to be about the inability to have an orgasm. ("You leave me dry!" as mentioned earlier.) The sexual nature of these tracks can be disturbing, but its never without passion or meaning, which, for me, makes it almost admirable.

"Ecstasy" closes out the set, and is also one of the disc's highlights, vocally, lyrically, and musically. It is one of her best vocal performances as she yells without screaming, and song seems to be a happy one for a change (she is "in ectsasy" and she's "flying, hitting heavens high"). This is cut bittersweetly by the last chorus when she sings "I'm begging you, look at me / In ecstasy" implying that no one is noticing how happy she is, no one is caring. The musical outro is a rightful finale, with a grind and a slide and a twist all all in one, mirroring the frenzy of emotions that rolled out in the 50 minutes before it. It's a defining moment, when you realize she's done singing, and you don't even mind that she's relinquished the mic.

You want to know how inspirational Rid of Me gets? It's simultaneously a reference point for sensitive work like Craig Thompson's Blankets and lesbian revenge fantasies like Rid of Me: A Story by Kate Schatz. Look at the album cover, with Harvey throwing her wet hair around like she's Medusa. Here, as in her songs, she is sexually frightening and frighteningly sexual. Her guitar and backing band obliterate everything. Yet Harvey never really revisited this bleak songwriting style (not counting weak retread Uh-Huh Her), but she didn't need to do so. Rid of Me is a relentlessly raw, rocking dirge without peer.

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