Dry. Released 1992 on Too Pure Records. Written, performed and co-produced by Polly Jean Harvey, with a band harvested from the carcass of Automatic Dlamini (whose alumni include Polly Jean Harvey. Also: long-time Polly Jean Harvey collaborators John Parish and Rob Ellis – the latter on also on production duties for much of this. Also: drum bashing. Also: co-writer credits on three tracks).
#6 on the NME year-end album list. #6 on Melody Maker‘s, #5 on Rolling Stone‘s, whilst second single ‘Sheela-Na-Gig’ came second in John Peels’ Festive Fifty – one behind the semi-forgotten ‘Geek Love’ by Bang Bang Machine.
‘Sheela-Na-Gig’; first heard on the John Peel show, winter/spring 1992. A grainy time, full of love and loss and Bowie back-cat (the love and loss misunderstood, misinterpreted; the final item registering in multiple wavelengths – it’s why I write a music blog, rather than something focusing on relationship advice).
‘Sheela-Na-Gig’; an opening whisper, the delicate, measured wail of barely-tuned guitar (one level of attraction behind all this pivots upon the raw, caustic verisimilitude of the production). Then, in the space left behind: “I’ve been trying to tell you, over and over…”
When the guitar re-starts it does so with a prowling edge to it, as if the fretwork belongs to one of Billy Bragg’s angrier one-man shows. And a half-beat after that, the vocal;
“Look at these, my child-bearing hips / Look at these, my ruby red, ruby lips.”
It’s a powerful rhyming couplet; dramatic when contextualised by the arrangement, by the route this particular track takes as it coils itself around both narrative and thematic deposition. Those two simple lines say so much about femininity, the awareness of femininity, a framed degree of polarity, a young woman sure of herself in a place and time that’s still distinctly unsure and uncertain – even of itself. This is a song that grows from those two, simple lines, stalking through enquiry, the rough-hewn chorus, the call and answer snapshots of relationship that spell out subsequent verses.
It’s an important song because you can extrapolate outward from here. Themes framed elegantly, exploratory, intense and personal yet crafted, the use of cello unorthodox, the higher strings discordant, coarsely brushing against the rhythm section. Sparse instrumentation, spiky intonation, an intelligent album that slotted neatly into the vocabulary of the year of our lord, 1992.
Except that it isn’t 1992 any more. I know – I’ve checked. Which doesn’t mean that Dry only works in an early ’90’s context; from the opening lines of ‘Oh My Lover’ onwards, the power and the beauty hit, homewards. It’s everything else that… that… (cue scrabble for words, for an explanation or a a distillation of sentiment, description as thought, as gut feeling, as a failure to articulate, to explain away that relationship between listener and song)… Because I can stick a PJ Harvey record not named Dry on the turntable; only when attempting to measure the ripples it makes, the lack of tide-line implies that the tank may have always been empty. I’ve no idea why this is (apart from intangibles such as gut feeling). All I know is that she lost me half-way through Rid Of Me, when ’50ft Queenie’ tried to kiss me under an auburn sky, and I realised that the structure of my attraction lay upon different points of the compass.
And it’s not even through lack of effort on my part. Subsequent albums purchased. Listened to in depth, in seedy apartments abutting LAX and the Hollywood Racecourse; on the coast, near Worthing; in the crux of a bevelled dawn; on low in the background during dinner parties where I’ll drink too much and make a risqué joke too far. Nothing comes close to Dry or that evening with John Peel back in 1992 – only were you to enquire why, any articulation on my part will fold in upon itself – like plants, like rags perhaps.
PJ Harvey / Oh My Lover