PJ Harvey’s 10 Best Collaborations

PJ Harvey
(Credit: Gie Knaeps/Getty Images)

Since debuting with her ferocious 1992 LP, Dry, U.K. singer/songwriter Polly Jean Harvey has only moved in one direction: forward. 

She’s never made the same album twice, instead choosing to conquer unexplored terrain — whether it’s the gritty punk-blues of 1993’s Rid of Me, the understated ballads of 2007’s White Chalk or the World War I-inspired narratives of 2011’s Let England Shake. She’s capable of writing beautiful melodies, but she’s also never hesitated to get her hands dirty — often employing grimy textures or lo-fi sounds in order to draw out immediacy and intensity. 

Harvey’s collaborated with numerous artists throughout her career — sharing a like-minded ambition, if not always a similar aesthetic. She’s appeared on dusty country-folk interpretations of classic punk songs, co-written songs for art-rock legends, and even tackled a vintage torch song with a frequent musical partner. Interestingly enough, Harvey rarely features marquee guest artists on her own albums. (There is one exception to that rule, however, and it’s a pretty big one.)

Earlier this year, Harvey launched a reissue campaign that will see all of her albums released on vinyl, along with previously unreleased demo recordings for each. To coincide with the new package for her iconic 1995 album, To Bring You My Love, out September 11, here are 10 of her best collaborations.

10. “Just a Working Girl” (with Moonshake) 

Short-lived London post-rock group Moonshake didn’t make a large commercial impact in their six years together, though their personnel in that span is something like Six-Degrees-of-British-Indie, with various members eventually making their way into bands like Laika, Stereolab and Spiritualized. For a brief time they were labelmates with Harvey, who shows up on this wonky piece of deconstructed trip-hop. An obscure deep cut from early on in Harvey’s career, 1994’s “Just A Working Girl” finds Moonshake vocalist David Callahan describing the various clients of a prostitute (“A fishmonger who hasn’t washed for a week… A headmaster with a Polaroid and a pleated uniform”). In its brief moments of climax, he hands off the refrain to Harvey, who brings a sense of pathos to the title figure: “Just a working girl / Schemes and missed appointments / Just a working girl / Dreams and disappointments.”

9. “Johnny Hit and Run Paulene” (with Giant Sand)

Giant Sand’s 2002 album Cover Magazine finds the veteran Tucson alt-country group exploring their influences, from logical inspirations such as Marty Robbins’ “El Paso” and folk song “Wayfaring Stranger” to more surprising covers like Goldfrapp’s “Human” and “Lovely Head.” For their haunting, stripped-down take on X’s punkabilly rape story “Johnny Hit and Run Paulene,” Harvey plays Exene to Howe Gelb’s John Doe. Removed from its upbeat rock ‘n’ roll context, the song grows more sinister, lending a greater sense of terror to the predatory narrative. But it’s Harvey’s own ghostly backing vocals, caked in reverb, that take the song from dark to truly unsettling. That’s not the only Harvey-related moment here, either: Later on that same album, Gelb and company offer their own version of “Plants and Rags” from Harvey’s debut album, Dry

8. “Hit the City” (with Mark Lanegan)

There isn’t an obvious unifying quality to Harvey’s collaborators, though she seems to prefer those whose badassery matches her own. In 2004, Harvey lent her vocals to “Hit the City,” a gritty standout from the sixth album by the sandpaper-voiced Mark Lanegan, former vocalist of Screaming Trees and contributor to Queens of the Stone Age. The track’s rowdy, punk-blues sound is a natural fit for Harvey: Its simple but scorching arrangement recalls Rid of Me, while her voice provides a harmonic counterpoint to Lanegan’s smoky leads.

7. “No Child of Mine” (with Marianne Faithfull)

On 2005’s Before the Poison, iconic singer Marianne Faithfull enlisted an incredible team of collaborative songwriters, including Nick Cave and Blur’s Damon Albarn. Harvey wrote or co-wrote five of the album’s tracks, among them this haunting dirge of spectral, gothic piano twinkles and sing-speak verses, with Harvey and Faithfull harmonizing on the chorus. Stylistically it shares a lot in common with the eerier tracks from 1998’s Is This Desire? and 2007’s White Chalk, though curiously Harvey saved only the upbeat, major key coda — performed solo — for her 2004 album, Uh Huh Her.

6. “Piano Fire” (with Sparklehorse)

Sparklehorse’s Mark Linkous showcased a strong Harvey influence on songs like 1998’s “Pig.” So three years later, she returned the favor with an appearance on “Piano Fire,” a melancholy standout from 2001’s It’s a Wonderful Life. Despite the lo-fi production and dense layers of fuzz, a deliberate production aesthetic that set Linkous apart from many of his peers, Harvey’s voice cuts through the distortion — merging with his in stunning harmony.

5. “Broken Homes” (with Tricky)

Throughout his career, Tricky’s found compelling foils in a rotating stable of guest vocalists, like Martina Topley-Bird and Alison Goldfrapp. In 1998, Harvey lent her vocals to this ominous, gothic gospel single, her lyrics a series of grim ideas about the intersection of fame and violence: “Life is pain, murder is fame / And if you’re famous you might get acquitted — if you did it.” It’s neither a reflection of Tricky’s characteristic Bristol trip-hop sound nor Harvey’s ragged, bluesy rock, but instead a chilling death march that predicted the haunting electronic experiments of her album Is This Desire? later that same year. 

4. “Crawl Home” (with Desert Sessions)

Queens of the Stone Age’s Josh Homme started Desert Sessions in the ‘90s, bringing together a loose collective of musicians to “play for the sake of music.” By the ninth installment of the collective’s EP series, I See You Hearin’ Me, the personnel lineup had expanded to include the likes of A Perfect Circle’s Josh Freese, Eleven’s Alain Johannes, Dean Ween and Harvey. Her vocals appear on two tracks, with “Crawl Home” the blazing, ferocious standout. Each line is only one or two words, but Harvey sells each syllable, her superhuman pipes a formidable match for Homme and company’s burly desert rock backing.

3. “Is That All There Is?” (with John Parish)

Harvey recorded two albums with collaborator John Parish and appeared on his debut solo project, though their most memorable moment together comes toward the end of their first LP, Dance Hall at Louse Point. Among a tracklist of raw, abrasive rock songs, the duo offers an unexpected diversion with Peggy Lee’s famed torch song “Is That All There Is?” A morbidly ironic track in which the narrator finds even the idea of death a boring disappointment, it’s a perfect match for Harvey and Parish, who make an already darkly humorous tune much eerier through lo-fi sound and Harvey’s detached narration.

2. “This Mess We’re In” (with Thom Yorke)

Harvey and Radiohead made their debuts within a year of each other, subsequently becoming two of the U.K.’s most celebrated artists. So it’s surprising they’ve only crossed paths once, with Thom Yorke providing guest vocals on this standout from Harvey’s 2000 album, Stories from the City, Stories from the Sea. The two singers perform a back-and-forth, he-said/she-said depiction of a crumbling fictional relationship, with increasing layers of instrumentation building up beneath their overlapping vocals. It’s one of the most gorgeous, devastating highlights of both Harvey’s and Yorke’s careers alike. 

1. “Henry Lee” (with Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds)

Nick Cave and Harvey have a storied history. Their brief but now-mythic romantic relationship in the mid-’90s ended up influencing each of the albums released in the aftermath of their breakup: Cave’s gorgeous 1997 LP, The Boatman’s Call, and Harvey’s turbulent Is This Desire? But before going their separate ways, Harvey and Cave shared space on a highlight from Cave’s 1996 album, Murder Ballads: a graceful reworking of folk ballad “Young Hunting” retitled “Henry Lee.” The song, like everything on the record, ends with someone getting killed: “She leaned herself against a fence, just for a kiss or two,” Cave sings. “And with a little pen-knife held in her hand, she plugged him through and through.” Yet to see Harvey and Cave so intimately close in the video — waltzing and staring into each other’s eyes — it feels like one of the most romantic songs ever recorded.

 

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