Laura Snapes on PJ Harvey’s “ Uh Huh Her ”: NPR
Illustration photo by Renee Klahr / NPR / Getty Images
NPR Music turns the tables is a project designed to challenge sexist and exclusive conversations about musical greatness. So far, we’ve focused on overthrowing the best conventional patriarchal lists and popular music stories. But this time it’s personal. For 2021, we’re digging our own relationships with the records we love, asking ourselves: how do we as listeners know when a piece of music is important to us? How can we free ourselves from institutional pressures on our tastes while taking into account the lessons of history? What does it mean to make a truly personal cannon? Essays in this series will delve into our unique relationships with the albums we love, from flawless classics from big stars to subcultural game-changers and personal revelations. Because the way certain music takes center stage in our lives is not just a reflection of how we develop our taste, but how we arrive at our perspective on the world.
As a kid discovering pop on your own, you put together a mishmash of half-remembered facts and other people’s opinions. Many of them were from a UK Saturday morning variety show Live and kicks and a singles review segment called Hit, miss or maybe, where the gathered guests waved oversized thumbs of novelty in passing judgment. Manic Street Preachers? Terribly boring. To lack! Cardigans and Tom Jones doing “Burning Down the House”? Surprisingly sexy for an old codger! Hit! Music videos on a white background? Absolutely the laziest thing ever. Incredibly lazy! Well done forever! These judgments sounded like gospel, parrot opinions and to be taken seriously: why else would they make their paw hammers so impressive? But when we got the cable a few years later, I discovered PJ Harvey’s “It’s love“on MTV2 and this latest verdict returned 180.
Swagger in a fringed white suit, virtually all that was visible of Harvey against the white background was his guitar, bare breastbone, black feather cut, and giant, magnetic mouth painted red. It wasn’t the room, I realized, but what you made of it. She transmitted a cheeky and confident hunger, and stirred one in me to be like her – not a passive ear but an appetite; a self-creation, not a cut-and-shut. At that point, Harvey was a decade into a career that began when I was two. Parent album of “This Is Love”, 2000s Stories of the city, stories of the sea, had already won the Mercury Prize and was popular enough in the UK that I could buy it at the supermarket while dragging mum down the aisles. Not knowing anything about her or anyone else, I did a piecemeal work to acquire the rest of her catalog. I found 4-track demos on a trip to church in the town of Glastonbury, keeping the promise that we would indeed undertake a religious pilgrimage that day.
It’s a powerful moment where the timeline of your teenage years overlaps with that drawn by an artist building a beloved legacy. In 2004, Harvey’s sixth album, Uh huh her, became his first outing that I experienced as a fan. No longer playing catch-up, now I have the same chance as anyone else to cultivate my expertise and make this album mine. I would have loved everything she pulled out, stunned to finally meet her in real time. As I would learn, Harvey does not indulge in passive pleasures. I was surprised by the awkwardness and ugliness of the glamorous woman who walked through New York on the cover of Stories had done it herself: wincing in a flashed Polaroid on the cover, the one I recreated in colored pencils for GCSE art down to her concave collarbones. She had scrawled a photo inside the liner notes with the comment “too PJ H?” How could anything be too much PJ H?
Then 15 years, my friends and I were fervent converts to the culture of the image. Harvey’s self-questioning and gleeful self-destruction was a tall order, especially watching her destroy the chic beauty that the media made us believe was the final form of a woman. (The Stories the works of art had seemed very Gender and city for me, at least from the few episodes I had captured late at night with the volume turned down.) I was delighted to feel recognized in her masquerade. At 15, willful chaos was my style MO: Mismatched Converse; thick brown corduroy pants topped with a tutu and Darkness t-shirt; a skirt that looked like a garbage bag with a zipper, hated by friends and relatives and good for her. I was delighted to see, thanks to a televised performance Harvey gave from St Luke’s Church in London, that we both favored the high waisted rainbow socks contrasting with the rest of the outfit.
The filthy guitar and terminal sneer of many Uh huh her Harvey’s feeling of utter desecration asserted: they were mud stories, and she reveled in them. The indignant cry of “Who the F ***?” has become a perfectly suited adolescent mantra. (I later learned that it was about her rage after a terrible haircut, a situation I could not have recounted thanks to the self-administration of most of mine with kitchen scissors. .) I didn’t know who the man with the poisoned lips was. “The Life and Death of Mr. Badmouth” was, but as a staunch follower of what I grossly believed to be feminism, I accepted this faceless bastard in my conception of men as a malignant force. “Pocket Knife” was an anti-marriage rant rendered in a tinny rattle, as if Harvey had unearthed a popular standard that offered a heartwarming ancient precedent for a woman refusing society’s expectations.
While I appreciate Harvey’s desire to push back, I was still offended when he presumably had the desired effect on the rest of the world. My critical organ of trust, NME, given Uh huh her 5/10. According to them, this reinforced “the growing suspicion that PJ Harvey has overthrown all the emotional courage she had on her first three albums and which she is running on empty these days.” Everything was better in the past, apparently – his flanks against treacherous lovers, the danger in his voice – and enjoying this album was to be “middlebrow”, buying into the “high-fashion gloss” that I thought was it had just burned like old rags. Apparently by the time I joined the party everyone rolled their eyes and left. Traitors! Extremely low thumbs!
I felt mildly berated, baffled that their reviewer didn’t see him the same way I did, but not disheartened: Harvey’s influence over me prevailed as the nervous desire of the young critical alignment wore off. . Acquiring a broadband connection, personal independence and a job in a record store soon allowed me to inspire the rest of its catalog: while I still think Uh huh her is a better record than that NME review did – “The Desperate Kingdom of Love” is one of his finest songs, and I love it when it’s rude and exuberant – exposure to the ravages of Get rid of me and the scared Is it this desire? eventually pushed down my personal Peej pantheon.
I don’t see him often, but that moment in Harvey’s career lives on in me. To see this woman I so admired derail a linear path to greater success and greater approval – the de facto path as far as teachers are concerned – was revealing. I challenged an academic zig-zag trail just like my closest friends. You could call with precision Stories of the city, stories of the sea an album that changed my life because it introduced me to my oldest musical love. But I would give this coat to Uh huh her: after putting me on a path, Harvey showed the cheeky pleasure of getting rid of it.
Laura Snapes is Associate Editor-in-Chief of The Guardian.