Quarantining The Past: PJ Harvey’s ‘Rid Of Me’

    Since Rid of Me is considered, you know, so combative, why not take all that fierce opposition and pit it against a couple other records of its time, shall we?


    1. The Bodyguard Soundtrack

    So this is the best selling soundtrack of all time. It sold so many copies, it was the number one selling record for 1993 — the year Rid of Me came out — and it was released in November 1992. It’s got Whitney Houston’s booming, seemingly powerful voice knocking out Dolly Parton’s “I Will Always Love You” and “I’m Every Woman” (originally a hit for Chaka Khan) and “I Have Nothing” and so on and so forth.


    But it’s hard to imagine this record existing in the same world as Rid of Me. Houston plays victim in the film, somehow guarded by a visibly exhausted Kevin Costner, and that victimization spills over into the songs.  She is defined by that person she doesn’t have, she has nothing if she doesn’t have “you.” If her voice is powerful, and it is in an impressive, if obvious, way, the feelings it expresses are not. This is the damsel in distress, the woman in need of saving. In other words, it’s the polar opposite of what PJ Harvey was doing.


    Harvey is not interested in being saved on Rid of Me, she’s interested in knocking it all down with her otherworldly voice (a beauty much tougher to tangle with than Houston’s singing) and her guitar assault. She’s backed by two men, yes, in drummer Robert Ellis and bassist Steve Vaughan, but they are there to serve her, as is volatile producer Steve Albini (who we’ll get to in a moment).


    Perhaps the best place to contrast these two albums comes in covers. Houston’s “I’m Every Woman” is playful and poppy and empowering in a shallow way. It tries to lift up the hurt balladry of the other songs with a moment of earned joy, even self-actualization.  Of course, it’s telling that the next song on the soundtrack, “Run to You,” negates that. It was a hit because it’s a fun and catchy song, but it hardly says anything other than Houston and the filmmakers know how to market. Hit them with the treacly ballads then bring out the pop gem. It’ll look like it says something, like its celebrating, even if it isn’t.


    On Rid of Me, released seven months after Houston’s soundtrack, Harvey tries to combat such simple gestures of femininity (not feminism). She’s out to take down whatever she can around her, out to drown out the pop divas and out rock the guitar heros. And if her brand of female power here is combative, that is what makes it provocative yes, but mostly what makes it fascinating and beautiful. Nowhere is this power more curious than when she takes on the most famous white male songwriter of the last half-century. Her version of Bob Dylan’s “Highway ’61 Revisited” is scraped and scratched, buzzing with distortion and rattling with Ellis’s drums. As a cover, it’s nearly unrecognizable. Harvey claims it as her own, digging into blues traditions Dylan himself appreciated and outdoing him, her voice deep and angered and volatile. 


    As Houston constantly retreats — into idealized womanhood on “I’m Every Woman” or into someone’s arms on the other songs — Harvey charges forward. She’s not interested in the Hollywood role of victim, hell she’s not even interested in being a character in some larger plot. She wants to be something bigger, something these tough-seeming men milling around her can’t handle. She wants to be a force of nature, one that storms and roils, one that tears things down and whips everything up in its power, even as you watch it in awe. It’s no wonder Houston sold more records — her idea of womanhood was far easier to digest, far more accepted — but Harvey and others were pushing back against this idea.


    2. Liz Phair – Exile in Guyville

    So yeah, she wasn’t alone in this opposition. Liz Phair released Exile in Guyville in 1993 and would eventually best Harvey on a lot of end-of-year lists.  They both ranked high, but Phair edged Harvey out often. But there’s a reason for that. For all its greatness and confrontational sexuality, Exile in Guyville is still looking for attention. Phair took control of her sexuality, but she was still seeking sex-symbol status. So while it was refreshing to see her unapologetic take on sex and her objectification of men, it seemed aware it was shocking you. To name a song “Fuck and Run” is to know you’re going to raise some eyebrows.


    Pit that against, say, Harvey’s “Dry.” The title is unassuming and if you’re not paying attention the repeated line in it might just wash over you as another example of her ragged but beautifully curled vocals. But the more she wails  “you leave me dry” the tougher it gets to hear. It’s said with such derision, such dismissal that the subject doesn’t seem to be, well, too man-sized at this point. Harvey doesn’t use sexuality to lift herself up, she instead breaks down the myth of masculine sexual prowess. If Phair was out to objectify men, Harvey was out to crush them (a targeted few, I imagine). While Phair was convincing us she could light the bedroom on fire (with some poor schmuck in it), Harvey was busy scorching the earth. And she is not kidding when she warns, on the title track, that you’ll be screaming “don’t you wish you never met her.” This isn’t seduction followed by deceit, this is front-and-center sonic combat.


    Which brings us to Steve Albini. The  producer gets talked about an awful lot when we talk about Rid of Me. Some claim his production makes the record, others claim his huge walls of distortion and thundering drums drown out Harvey’s vocals that shined through so beautifully on 1992’s Dry.


    Frankly, either argument misses the point. Later in 1993, Harvey would release 4-Track Demos, a record of homemade recordings, many of which were songs that ended up on Rid of Me. If the record (which is excellent, by the way) tells us anything, it’s that Harvey herself loves her some distortion. The guitars are jagged and powerful on their own, the space around her filled up by their buzzing. If the distortion is heavy on Rid of Me, it is as much Harvey’s doing as Albini’s. Check out “Missed,” one of the less distorted songs on the record (at least in places). These songs are built on Harvey’s tense playing, on her tight-to-snapping playing, on how a moody verse riff can blow up into a storm of power chords on the chorus. Albini may have worked to highlight these shifts, maybe even pushed them further than they should go, but this noise belongs to Harvey first and foremost.


    And anyway, to give Albini claim over this sound (positively or negatively) is to wholly miss the point of the record. Albini, like Ellis and Vaughan, is here in service of Harvey’s vision. She is running the show, and as her themes here are confrontational, often violent even when they also seem hurt, Harvey is ultimately trying to blow a hole in the male-centric rock world to make a space for herself. You know what other record finished above Rid of Me in a lot of end-of-year lists? Nirvana’s In Utero. Not that Cobain and company weren’t deserving, but the point is Harvey’s record was created in that early-’90s world where record companies were scrambling for any and every bunch of dudes that could make a racket with power chords. For a woman to break through meant a huge uphill climb. So as much as Rid of Me feels devastatingly personal, it’s also got larger political implications.


    Yes, Harvey’s voice is sometimes drown out by the guitars, but couldn’t that represent the climate of the time, where distorted guitars, played largely by men, were given more time than provocative female artists like Harvey? Note the times her voice breaks through that noise early on — particularly the alien wails of “Legs” — and especially how as the record moves Harvey’s vocals start to rise in the mix, powering over her guitar. As much as we hear about how the “50FT Queenie” rules over her court with an iron fist, Rid of Me is also a document of Harvey breaking new musical ground. Her sound is strong and dark, haunting and larger than life, and it was an album that got attention not because it wanted it but because it deserved it, because this was a sound that could not be ignored. At a time where Houston-as-victim sold millions of records, Harvey (and Phair and others) lets us know a change was coming, whether we were ready or not. Harvey wasn’t hiding behind distortion, and she didn’t get her power from Steve Albini. Harvey was just surveying the land, listing her targets before she tore through them.


    Harvey’s sound would move all over the place after this, and though she has other great records, Rid of Me, is probably her most lasting sound. It came at the perfect time, it had all the power to fight against the male-heavy rock world and the weak-female cultural tropes, and it’s a perfect example of an album too fascinating to ignore. Phair lured us in with that come-hither sneer, while Harvey won us over by ignoring us and making a big noise all her own.


    The artwork says it all. Her eyes are open, looking at us on the cover, but its almost incidental, an accidental glare thrown as she whips her wet hair around. On the inside sleeve, Ellis and Vaughan look  at the camera while Harvey, obscured by darkness, stares them down, admiring them while asserting control. And, on the back, a close of up of Harvey’s face. Her eyes are closed. This is her world, her dream. We are in her head on Rid of Me. Houston could pander to our egos, Phair could get us all worked up, but PJ Harvey didn’t give a fuck. We were the visitors in her torn-up sonic landscape. It was us who had to adapt, or else we’d get runover by this growling masterpiece.


    Quarantining the Past is a new on-going column at Prefix Magazine where we’ll discuss albums from the ’90s. Records that were important to the decade, albums we overlooked, albums by important bands that don’t get talked about enough, albums that get better with age and those that time has been unkind to — we’ll talk about them all, with a new album featured every week. Got an album from the ’90s you want highlighted? Let us know in the comments, and don’t forget to share your thoughts on the featured album each week.