PJ Harvey, Bizarre Gowns, and War as Murder

From "White Chalk," 2007

PJ Harvey has had it with humanity. At least, that what seems to be the case in her latest album, Let England Shake.  I’ve been a fan of PJ since my 14-year-old self discovered her pain filled caterwauling in 1993 when I purchased a cassette tape (TRUTH) of Dry and listened to it endlessly while holed up in my bedroom waiting for people to get less shitty. Harvey is the queen of the musical character study. Every album has its own personality, its own cast of bizarre female characters, and its own story that blurs the lines of fiction and memoir.  She has the most dedicated fan base of any single musician I can think of, but her albums are so self-contained, that each new experiment briefly alienates some part of her base. That’s cool, cause they always come back.

Operating more in the realm of performance art, than rock music, Harvey’s albums often delve into uncomfortable themes of sexually fraught crises, painful identity tension, death, abandonment, the odd tale of prostitution, miscarriage, you know… the lighter sides of life. Each album also has its accompanying “main character,” or persona which has its own “look.” After listening for the millionth time to Let England Shake, which is probably her most coherent concept album to date (I don’t want to ruin the surprise, but it’s a pretty awesome pre-apocalyptic protest album), I thought I’d take a look back at nearly 20 years of PJ Harvey character study fashion.

Looking super unimpressed in 1992

Dry, her debut album (recorded when she was 22), was a supremely sarcastic, raw tale of a sexually predatory woman. She frequently mocked the paradigm of the “good wife and mother,” engaging instead in wild affairs that were emotionally violent in their imagery. It was pretty awesome. As was the rebellious leather jacket she often wore, the plain unmade up face, the SINGLE hoop earring, and the severely pulled back hair style paired with an expression that read  as “meh.”

"MEH."

Rid of Me  was similarly sexually explicit and filled with mockery. It was also a little more “fuck you,” and so were its outfits. Harvey’s 1994 was all about the weird fur coat.

Tell you my name and FU and CK

Looking superbly annoyed in this photo by Anton Corbijn

Nothing says high glam onsies and gowns like songs about being a serial killer, drowning babies, and sexual role reversals!

on the set of "Down by the Water," 1995

Correct.

Singing about drowning babies has never looked so intriguing

At some point between 1995 and 2000, PJ Harvey grew up, got a hair cut and moved briefly to New York. Stories From the City Stories From the Sea featured a city-style Harvey.

Sunglasses at night means you're serious

Uh Huh Her was a crazy, guitar driven, intimate foray into really REALLY wanting an object of desire that you can’t have (and also about not wanting to marry someone because you’re too young) because you’re PJ Harvey and shit’s just never easy. What do you do when you want someone you can’t have? You look fucking good and make them notice you with bright colors and form fitting dresses and hot pants. Obviously.

I'm wearing hot pants. Come get me.

I want a dress with detachable arms!

More detachable arms

Now from here, it gets interesting. In 2007 she released White Chalk and seriously broke out the bizarre goth prairie gowns. I don’t know what was going on, but I like it. Additionally, White Chalk is fucking disturbing. It’s like listening to someone who went to a parallel universe and had a nervous breakdown.

Here, watch:

What the hell is going on? Where did she even find a dress like that? It’s like a young Ms. Haversham.  Here are some more prairie dress explosions:

Holy shit

Whoa

Pupils dilated

2009’s A Woman A Man Walked By lacked what felt like a central character and was instead comprised of a series of voices varying in their intensity and darkness. Conceptually, it felt like a series of cinematic vignettes or folk tales. And so you get lace, pearls, broaches. Character snippets from a story you know, but can’t quite place.

Plot points await

What's happening?

Yes

As I said earlier, her latest album, Let England Shake, is a pretty epic pre and post-apocalyptic protest album. SPOILER ALERT: it basically charts the decline and decay of the West, an almost total destruction of the Earth as a result of English and American oil greed, and the ways in which we abuse young men by training them to be killers and sending them off to greed-induced wars. There’s also a bit thrown in there about how England produced the worst sort of children–America.

Each song in the album has an accompanying short film by filmmaker Seamus Murphy. Between that and Harvey’s post-apocalyptic fashion, this album is quite the multi-media experience of impending DOOM.

Futuristic attire against a backdrop of rubble

Wandering through decimation with some feathers and a flowy dress

Just heralding in the end of Western domination at the NME awards

The thing I like the best about PJ Harvey is that when you hear her interviewed, she’s actually quite soft spoken, polite, and sweet. Somehow she manages to release layers of depth,discomfort,  bizarreness, and tension from her tiny frame, but if you just met her at a party you’d never guess it. There would be a disconnect between mild-mannered PJ Harvey and the intense woman who could be seen wandering sets of TV shows in Gothic prairie gowns and singing lyrics like “What is the glorious fruit of our land? The rudest, evil children.”*

Check it:

PREACH! I am so into this album.

*CORRECTION: The lyrics, as pointed out by “niina” below actually read, “What is the glorious fruit of our land?/ the fruit is deformed children.” Jesus, Ms. Harvey!

About Michael von Braithwaite

Does it look like I'd wear it on a boat, at an eccentric person's estate or accompanied by a peacock on a chain? Yeah, I'll probably buy that.

7 comments

  1. Antigone's Room

    love it! so great to get the history of P.J. because I lose track of her at times, easy to happen between introverted fans and introverted artists.

  2. crrrrrie

    you know how i, your obsessive cousin (better than naked?) feel about ms. harvey. this is a marvelous exploration, and you made many points i’d never thought of, or noticed, or got. the new album has vexed me, as i like it lyrically but not much musically. i do enjoy the accompanying look (although i’ve liked every look post-dry). there’s still a strong prairie vibe, an american frontier sort of thing (obviously, when feather headdresses are involved), but i hadn’t noticed the rubble she’s often in front of, or the futuristic-ness. after reading this it seems like a post-apocalyptic new tribalism. and unlike the album, the fashion seems to be the next logical step after white chalk. oh, and may i give a yowza to the uh huh her ensembles?!

  3. Great post about a mega stylish lady. I love her character tendencies. I think the lyric of the song quoted is “what is the glorious fruit of our land? / the fruit is deformed children,” which is also super intense & about war.

  4. What about ’98’s ‘Is this desire?’?? I want to know what PJ was wearing then…

  5. YorkvilleNewfie

    Yeah, what about Is This Desire? and Dance Hall At Louse Point…

  6. Nermin Çevik

    lady gaga güzel

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