“I very much wanted to write songs that shocked,” PJ Harvey recently told Spin about her early career. “All I wanted to do was shock with my artwork. When I wrote ‘Rid of Me,’ I shocked myself.”
This would have occurred sometime in 1992–3, when the moniker “PJ Harvey” still denoted a trio of musicians: Rob Ellis, Steve Vaughan, and Polly Jean herself, a mere twenty-three years old. The whole music thing was supposed to be just a bit of fun before Harvey went to art school to study sculpture, but then some of the band’s early singles did unexpectedly well, and she decided she might as well make another album before people “get bored of me.” That album was Rid of Me, and anyone who pressed play on the first and title track knew this woman wasn’t meant to throw clay. She was meant to rock.
It starts quiet and airless, with a single repeated guitar note and minimalist drums that repeat over and over…and over…and over. A few measures in, you expect the lyrics to start. A few measures after that, you expect them again. Nope. It isn’t until the 47-second mark that Harvey’s voice comes in, half whisper, half moan, as if she’s singing through clenched teeth: “Tie yourself to me, no one else / No, you’re not rid of me. / Mm, you’re not rid of me.”
Shivers! Shivers up and down your spine! But there’s so much rage crushed into such a tiny vessel—how can that low little vibrato possibly contain it all? Oh, honey. Just wait until the chorus.
The chorus is the part where I start desperately pawing for the volume knob on my stereo because things just went from murmur to full-on roar. With any other song, I’d be pissed I had to bother with dials, but with “Rid of Me,” Harvey captures the twin engines of muffled despair and murderous rage so flawlessly that it seems perfectly natural when the song explodes into noise.
Steve Albini, who recorded the album at Pachyderm Studios, noted that shift in volume: “…the music this time had big dynamic shifts in it where it would go from quiet and moody into the bombastic—‘bombastic’ is the wrong way to put it—the bigger dynamic sections.” I think bombastic is the perfect way to put it. How better to describe the chorus’s drums like cannons going off and the lyrics repetitive as bullets? Not to mention the end of the song, when the instruments drop out but the bloody-throated lyrics retain all their volume and power: “Lick my legs, I’m on fire / Lick my legs of desire.”
Here’s a video of PJ Harvey performing an even-more-stripped-down-than-usual version of the song on Jay Leno’s show, without the other two members of the band. Afterward, she spends a couple minutes telling Leno about life on the farm in Dorset, England, where she grew up and, at the time, still lived. Fresh off a song about making her lover lick her injuries and then twisting his head off, she brings up the topic of sheep castration as if she has no idea why anyone would find it anything other than utterly normal. Yeah right, Polly. We see that sly little smile when you get into it about the rubber bands.
(Or for a higher-quality, non-embeddable version, click here.)
If, by the way, that bit about Steve Albini and Pachyderm Studios sounded familiar, it’s probably because that’s where and with whom Nirvana recorded In Utero. In fact, Rid of Me was one of the albums Albini gave to the band as an example of the lo-fi, live-music sound he envisioned for them. (This four-page letter to them elaborates on his ethos as a producer, if that kind of thing strikes your fancy.) Read more about Kurt Cobain as a Polly Jean fanboy in the next edition of PJ Harvey Tuesdays.