God is the sweat running down his back: The best of PJ Harvey

This ILM poll of the best PJ Harvey songs was fun because it forced me to think for a half a second about an artist whose work I’ve intermittently loved since 1995. I fudged my ballot with revisions, the most important of which was the addition of songs from Dry, which, unbelievably, I hadn’t heard beyond the singles until one morning in 2009.

Although consensus acknowledges her first two albums as masterworks, 1995’s To Bring You My Love is either the end of something or a new beginning. Replacing her own guitar with layered keyboards, she presented herself as a singer-songwriter who eschews singer-songwriter tropes like specificity; she got over on impact, alternating between burying her voice beneath the churning arrangements or wailing over quietude (I can’t think of any organs in rock so full of portent without coming off like a Bela Lugosi movie score). This vertigo makes Is This Desire? her most fraught record; I don’t who she’s going to pretend to be from song to song, each one of which offers an aural filigree that crunches or settles, like silt at the bottom of a pond. For several years it’s been the PJ Harvey album to which I’ve returned with increased wonder and dread because she doesn’t answer the title question: is this desire, she insists, for how can she know? Few performers who have studied the blues emerge less sure of its verities than Harvey does when this track fades.

The straightforward Stories From the City, Stories From the Sea inspired hosannas from male critics who were dying to hear Harvey pick up her guitar and pound a few nervous systems with the most conventional of singer-songwriter tropes: I’m In Love in the Big City. About half the album is great anyway, while the rest (“You Said Something,” “We Float”) simmers like second-tier Garbage. She bid farewell to pleasing a phantom audience with Uh Huh Her and White Chalk, the first a boatload of Polly Jean Harvey motifs that she reenacted for the last time, like an actress in a stock company; the second a post-ITD collection of ghostly narratives anchored by her amateur piano and falsetto. I’m still feeling it out — an evolution since my original Village Voice review. Let England Shake, on the other hand, is sui generis: an album steeped in Geoffrey Hill and Wilfred Owen that rumbles and spooks like PJ Harvey music should. Credit to Mick Harvey and John Parish, collaborators for a decade-plus whose inexhaustibility is as mythical as Harvey’s Eng-ga-land. I still don’t know what the hell this woman’s doing next. The Hope Six Demolition Project, released in April, questioned again the space between experience and distance, which doesn’t mean you or I have to like it. The greatest living recording artist?

1. The Sky Lit Up
2. Rid of Me
3. 50 Ft Queenie
4. To Bring You My Love
5. Is This Desire
6. Teclo
6. Sheela-Na-Gig
7. Kamikaze
8. Reeling
9. Highway 61 Revisited
10. Down by the Water
11. Long Snake Moan
12. Joe
13. The River
14. The Darker Days of Me & Him
15. Yuri-G
16. Big Exit
17. Meet Ze Monsta
18. Beautiful Feeling
19. As Close as This
20. Joy
21. This Glorious Land
22. The Knife
23. Dress
24. Dry
25. Happy and Bleeding
26. The Community of Hope
27. Bitter Branches
28. City of No Sun (w/John Parish)
29. A Perfect Day for Elise
30. Rub Til It Bleeds

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