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RECORD RACK

PJ Harvey's Impassioned Return

May 02, 1993|ROBERT HILBURN

PJ HARVEY

"Rid of Me"

Imago

* * * *

This follow-up to the English trio's widely acclaimed debut of last year confirms that Polly Jean Harvey is the most captivating pop arrival since Sinead O'Connor, and the singer-guitarist even goes her Irish counterpart one better in this sometimes astonishingly bold work.

Instead of redoing an obscure song by Prince, as O'Connor did, Harvey and the band that carries her name tackle a landmark song by an even greater rock legend: the title song from Bob Dylan's "Highway 61 Revisited." That 1965 album single-handedly raised the creative stakes in rock 'n' roll with surreal lyrics and torrential energy that summarized the restless mood of a generation impatient to redefine the social order.

Not only does she infuse Dylan's song with self-assurance and passion, but she also follows it confidently with a tune of her own ("50FT Queenie") that, while not covering such a wide social landscape, exhibits a similarly personalized artistic drive. And the rest of "Rid of Me" maintains that blistering pace.

The band's sound, also shaped by bassist Stephen Vaughan and drummer Robert Ellis, continues to focus on insistent, punk-like, blues-rock power, a force made all the more striking by the tension that results from the juxtaposition of loud, explosive moments and whisper-like intimacy.

The themes are equally intense--tales of sexual politics and control, often fueled by complex threads of disappointment and lingering desire. In the most biting moments, including "Rub Til It Bleeds" and "Legs," Harvey steps beyond the usual politeness of pop and rock to touch on the pain of open wounds and hidden scars with both angry and confessional images.

"I might as well be dead / But I could kill you instead," she sings, exhibiting both the passive and aggressive instincts that coexist in many of her deeply sensual and exotic songs. There is an occasional feminist edge, as in the mocking tones of "Man-Size," but more often she writes with the detached eye of a psychologist.

Produced by Steve Albini, who also produced the upcoming Nirvana album, "Rid of Me" seems at times like a collection of raw nerves, but there is never a sense of musical anarchy. All the competing and often conflicting sounds and images give the feeling of being dazzled at a concert by strobe lights that illuminate the action yet keep it wonderfully mysterious.

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