Throughout her musical career, Polly Jean Harvey has never been one to repeat herself creatively, with each of her albums bearing a distinctive artistic identity. While the jump from the heavy, muscular, tones of 2004’s Uh Huh Her to the delicate and gothic sounds of White Chalk in 2007 may have been the most jarring example of this tendency, it is something that has been evident from the beginning. Having received critical acclaim for her 1992 début album, Dry, Harvey returned in 1993 with Rid of Me; an album that answered Dry’s polished and punchy production with enough dirt and grit to stain any artifice.
Harvey chose recording engineer Steve Albini to produce Rid of Me, and by this time Albini had already earned a reputation – through his work with bands such as the Pixies, Slint, and The Jesus Lizard – for his ability to capture the raw immediacy of an artist’s performance with a direct an uncompromising approach in the studio. And so, over a two-week period in late ’92, at Pachyderm Studios in Minnesota – the same studio where Nirvana would record In Utero, also produced by Albini, a few months later – work on recording Rid of Me was started and completed, with most of the album laid down over a three-day period.
Recorded within a year of each other, Dry and Rid of Me exist almost as two sides of the same coin, albeit a coin pristine on one face and deeply tarnished on the other. From the outset with the extended, almost droning, intro to the titular Rid of Me, it becomes clear that the record is a different beast to Dry, and that’s before the song explodes with the psychotic energy of a woman on-edge; lacking self-confidence yet strongly assertive; pleading and demanding all at once. Ending with Harvey’s wailings of “lick my legs/I’m on fire/lick my legs/of desire” ad nauseam, Rid of Me is truly confronting, and establishes that the album is not one for casual listening.
Temporarily returning to a more conventional expression of grief and loneliness, the expertly arranged Missed soothes the preceding abrasion while still conveying an emotional earnestness that could have all too easily been lost had the artistry or production been even a little lacking. The song Man-Size exists in two forms on the record, first as a re-imagining of itself as Man-Size Sextet – the only track not recorded by Albini – with its instrumentation transmogrified into a horror movie soundtrack string arrangement, and later as gritty punk-rock. Both versions bring something to the table, but Sextet chills the blood in a way that wouldn’t be possible with the guitar/bass/drums approach of the rest of the album.
Harvey confidently ploughs through Bob Dylan’s Highway 61 Revisted, displaying an astounding feminine bravura at a time when such guttural rock deliveries were still largely the domain of men. Lead single 50ft Queenie continues the swagger of Revisted, blending it with a healthy dose of Rid of Me’s emotional death-spiral, while Me-Jane and Snake provide blasts of punk-blues that invert male-female narrative tropes, before the emotive blues of Ecstasy concludes the record. Many find Albini’s production style abrasive and difficult to listen to, but when coupled with the prowess and focus of an artist of Harvey’s calibre, the results are nothing if not commanding. Despite coming close on several occasions, Harvey has yet to better Rid of Me.