Pop culture can be as forbidding as it is inviting, particularly in areas that invite geeky obsession: The more devotion a genre or series or subculture inspires, the easier it is for the uninitiated to feel like they’re on the outside looking in. But geeks aren’t born; they’re made. And sometimes it only takes the right starting point to bring newbies into various intimidatingly vast obsessions. Gateways To Geekery is our regular attempt to help those who want to be enthralled, but aren’t sure where to start. Want advice? Suggest future Gateways To Geekery topics by e-mailing email@example.com.
Geek obsession: PJ Harvey
Why it’s daunting: Over her 20-year career, Polly Jean Harvey has shifted course with every album, as even a cursory glance at their covers reveals. Should you start with the forbidding figure on the front of Rid Of Me, naked but for a chain around her neck, or the fairy-tale corpse of To Bring You My Love, clad in a shimmering red dress and floating toward the light? Even her most loyal admirers draw the line at certain albums, and to make matters more confusing, there’s little agreement on which of Harvey’s experiments bear fruit and which lead down blind alleys.
Possible gateway: Stories From The City, Stories From The Sea
Why: After the initial salvo of Dry and Rid of Me, opinion on PJ Harvey’s subsequent releases diverged wildly, but consensus returned for 2000’s Stories From The City, Stories From The Sea, which in retrospect serves as a tidy summary of Harvey’s first decade. Produced and recorded with frequent collaborators Rob Ellis and Mick Harvey (no relation), Stories flawlessly balances the visceral wallop of Harvey’s first two albums with the expansive sound of the two that followed. “Big Exit” opens the record with a clarion call, an electric guitar strumming a single chord, joined by another doing the same, building the tension until Harvey’s voice cuts through, as if she’s the lookout on a ship headed into stormy seas. Song after song, the album builds on that template, deviating just frequently enough so it feels of a piece without being redundant. “Beautiful Feeling” is built on a low-register guitar figure that would have fit snugly on In Utero, and “This Mess We’re In” is a farewell duet between soon-to-be-ex-lovers, with Thom Yorke completing the mutual kiss-off. While not every song is as specific as “You Said Something,” which opens, “On a rooftop in Brooklyn / One in the morning,” Stories is grounded in a sense of place, and less burdened with theatrical conceit than some of Harvey’s more elaborate efforts. And yet for all its external detail, the album is one of her most intimate and plainspoken.
Next steps: Now back to the beginning, or almost. If you want to dive right into the deep end, head straight to 1993’s Rid Of Me, a blistering squall of unkempt rage and loss. Recorded by Steve Albini with such detail that you can hear the vibrations from Harvey’s guitar make Ellis’ snare drum rattle, the album draws inspiration from the guttural emotion and outsized role-playing of American blues. (Seek out her contemporaneous B-side cover of Howlin’ Wolf’s “Wang Dang Doodle.”) On the snarling “50ft Queenie,” she boasts, “I’m the king of the world… I’m 20 inches long.” At the time, critics paired Rid Of Me with Liz Phair’s Exile In Guyville, but in retrospect it’s more of a piece with Bikini Kill’s Pussy Whipped, although Harvey was too singular to make common cause with riot grrrls.
You also can’t go wrong with Dry, which finds a young Harvey wrestling with the burdens of femininity. The titular outfit in “Dress” makes her feel like “a heavy-loaded fruit tree,” and in “Sheela-Na-Gig,” which takes its name from a fertility idol, she fires back at a man repulsed by her body, using Carrie and South Pacific as ammunition. Considering that Harvey was all of 22 at the time, it’s an astonishingly fully formed debut, and remains one of the key touchstones of the alternative era.
Where not to start: Harvey followed Stories From the City with Uh Huh Her, a deliberate throwback to her early sound, but she broke free with a vengeance on 2007’s White Chalk. Setting aside her guitar, Harvey opted for a sound based around distressed upright piano and heavily reverbed vocals, as ethereal as the previous album was primal. It’s one of her finest albums, but listened to first, it might give you the wrong idea.