15 Insanely Great PJ Harvey Songs Only Hardcore Fans Know (And Everyone Else Should Too)

Photo of PJ HARVEY - Credit: Peter Pakvis/Redferns/Getty Images
Photo of PJ HARVEY - Credit: Peter Pakvis/Redferns/Getty Images

PJ Harvey’s dusky, brooding, and occasionally funny songs have won her a dedicated fanbase that has followed her as she changed her sound from grungy rock caterwauling to contemplative balladry over the past three decades. She has released nine studio albums to date (she recently told Rolling Stone that a 10th would come out next year) and along the way, she has discarded many songs that were just as good as the ones that found homes on her albums. This week, she’s releasing a sizable chunk of her lost sheep on the impressive box set, B-sides, Demos and Rarities, which contains 14 previously unreleased tracks among its 59 songs, rounding out her long-running archival project. In anticipation of the collection, here are 15 of Harvey’s greatest strays, covering her entire career, including a few that won’t appear in the box set.

“Dry” (demo) (circa 1991)

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Perhaps one of the greatest and funniest sexual putdowns in rock, Harvey tells a man repeatedly, “You leave me dry.” The demo, which appears for the first time in the box set, sounds as lusty and anxious as the version that she and her bandmates recorded for Rid of Me. But without bass or drums or Steve Albini’s controversial production (the album tended toward sounding claustrophobic), her slide guitar playing does most of the heavy lifting, giving the song a little extra mocking feeling.

“Primed and Ticking” (1993)

A song so kinetic and compelling that Rolling Stone used the title for a 1993 PJ Harvey profile, “Primed and Ticking” is slow-building noise-rock cacophony (with saxophone) as she sings, “I believe I fell from above/Primed and ticking for your love.” For reasons unknown, the song never made it onto any album though footage of her performing it appears on her Reeling With PJ Harvey home video. She stopped performing the song live that year, too.

“Claudine, the Inflatable One” (1993)

Harvey performed both “Primed and Ticking” and “Claudine, the Inflatable One” at a 1993 Peel Session, but neither made her Peel Sessions comp or the new box set. “Claudine” is another horn-infused blues number that may or may not be about a sex doll. “Inflate your body, my inflatable queen,” she sings, “Want to get right in your sack o’ skin.” It all ends with a bang, of course, as Harvey bellows, “Scream blue murder.”

“Daddy” (1993)

Harvey’s first exploration into the woozy, boozy sounds of pre-WWII German cabaret was on this sultry B side to Rid of Me’s “Man-Size,” which sounds like an outtake from Kurt Weill’s Threepenny Opera. A vast departure from the grungy sounds of her first couple of albums (other than the cinematic “Man-Size Sextet”), the recording begins with accordion and slowly adds drums and horns while she eerily and winsomely croons “Oh, Daddy, your baby is weak and calling out your name.” The honking horns in the backdrop speed up around her, like a tumble into a drunken reverie, adding to the maudlin mood of lyrics like, “The stars in the sky will shine down gently on the two of us tonight.” (She later revisited the vibe of the song, performing a sultry cover of Weill’s “Ballad of the Soldier’s Wife,” for the tribute special September Songs.)

“Wang Dang Doodle” (1993)

A continuation of the old-timey vibes of “Daddy” and Rid of Me’s “Man-Size Sextet,” Harvey’s Howlin’ Wolf cover swings and rages as she places herself within songwriter Willie Dixon’s lubricious lyrics. She growls and moans the refrain “Alll night looong” with the same sexuality as her own come-ons, “Sheela-Na-Gig” and “O My Lover,” and the whole thing has a fun, drunken feeling to it that sounds like it might teeter out of control at any minute. “Some of [his songs] are really near the mark,” Harvey once said of Dixon to NME. “It’s like, should you be laughing or squirming around when he’s singing about peeping on little girls?” That sentiment also fits Harvey’s music from the time.

“Naked Cousin” (Demo) (circa 1993)

Although “Naked Cousin” first appeared on the 1996 soundtrack to The Crow: City of Angels, Harvey was performing the song with her original trio as far back as a 1993 Peel Session. The lyrics seem shocking at first (why would anyone sing about seeing their cousin naked?) but as the story unfolds, the cousin seems more like an agent of chaos. “He run from everything that upsets his master plan,” she sings, before diving back into the panic of the chorus: “He’s running!”

“Somebody’s Down, Somebody’s Name” (1995)

“Hold on, I’m coming,” Harvey wails over slide guitar on this bluesy tempest that originally appeared as the B side to “Down by the Water.” “Somebody’s Down, Somebody’s Name” bears a rawer, heavier sound than the rest of To Bring You My Love, which may be why it didn’t make the final cut, or maybe it was because it had the desperation and the hunger of Harvey’s earlier albums as she describes a mounting body count and wails, “I’m coming/Don’t you tell me it’s too late.”

“Zaz Turned Blue” (with Eric Drew Feldman) (1997)

Oddball rock duo Was (Not Was) wrote “Zaz Turned Blue” for Mel Tormé to sing on their 1983 album, Born to Laugh at Tornadoes. On that album, Tormé croons the tune over plinking piano, but in Harvey’s hands, it bears a cinematic, atmospheric, occasionally heavy-metal quality that sounds similar to her Tricky collaboration the following year, “Broken Homes.” Her voice sounds powerful but also distraught as she mourns poor Zaz in what sounds like a very authentic way. The cover, a collaboration with former Captain Beefheart and the Magic Band member Eric Drew Feldman, came out only once on the compilation Lounge-A-Palooza.

“This Is Mine” (1997)

Harvey’s contribution to the soundtrack of the film Stella Does Tricks, finds her singing, “All of this is mine” over swelling and echoing strings. The song, which is a collaboration with film composer Nick Bicât, a slow-paced, evocative mood piece perfect for cinema and on its own, it’s a bit like a mantra. Although the track didn’t make the rarities box set, another Bicât collaboration that did is “Who Will Love Me Now?” — which appeared in the film The Passion of Darkly Noon and as a B side to “This Was My Veil” (from her first collaboration with John Parish) — and it’s one of the best in the collection.

“Nina in Ecstasy 2” (1999)

Perhaps a spiritual (and clothed) cousin to Nina Hagen’s bonkers hip-hop-funk exclamation point, “Prima Nina in Ekstasy,” Harvey’s “Nina in Ecstasy 2” sounds morose. “Once Nina was a young girl, now she’s dead,” she sings over a somber harmonium. “Grew older, grew cold, and lost her way.” Then the mood turns positive as she starts singing a little bit of Middle of the Road’s “Chirpy Chirpy Cheep,” “Where’s your mama gone?” The song, which first appeared as the B side to “The Wind,” sounds both sad and uplifting at the same time. “I sort of wanted to see the beauty and the fragility within a person under a title which implies something more like a porno movie, if that makes sense,” Harvey recently told Rolling Stone about the song. “There’s a person there and it’s fragile and it’s beautiful and it’s broken.”

“Memphis” (2000)

Harvey paid tribute to Jeff Buckley, who died by drowning in Memphis in 1997, on this B side to “Good Fortune.” “Oh, what a way to go,” she sings amid shimmering guitar, “So peaceful, you’re smiling.” In the fourth verse, she even quotes some of Buckley’s “Morning Theft,” alluding to his words, “I miss my beautiful friend,” making the song one of Harvey’s most emotional.

“Uh Huh Her” (2004)

PJ Harvey named her 2004 album Uh Huh Her and performed this song live around the album’s release, but she did not include it on her album. For years, the only place to hear it was on her concert DVD or her iTunes Originals sessions. Harvey has said she liked the title for this bluesy, caterwauling song because it was practically unpronounceable, something like a hiccup. By the time her vengeance makes it to the lyrics, “You will remember, remember me,” that hiccupping chorus has wormed its way into the memories of anyone who’s heard it.

“Heaven” (2007)

The first song PJ Harvey ever recorded solo was “Heaven,” which she cut while a member of her first group, the Automatic Dlamini for an album that never officially came out, Hear Catch, Shouted His Father. The fact that she took the guitar line to “Tropical Hot Dog Night” by one of her heroes, Captain Beefheart, shows how green she was. When she decided to re-record the song years later as the B side for “The Piano” (the version here), she decided to keep the song mostly as it was, right down to its theme about the folly of Eve and Adam and lyrics like, “If Heaven is a place on Earth, then I want to be on the moon.”

“The Sandman” (2019)

When dramatist Ivo van Hove began work on a theatrical retelling of the 1950 film classic, All About Eve, he asked Harvey to write the music. In the play, Gillian Anderson and Lily James sang Harvey’s songs but on the soundtrack album, Harvey sang them herself. On “The Sandman,” which appears early in the story, Harvey eerily about slumbers and sand dropped “into my eyes, one thousand joys,” her soprano wilting over a sparse piano line that owes a small debt to Franz Liszt’s “Liebestraum” (which played in the original movie.)

“Run On” (2022)

Harvey collaborated with film composer Tim Phillips on the score for Apple TV+’s (excellent) dramedy Bad Sisters. The theme music was their cover of Leonard Cohen’s “Who by Fire” but the real treat was their rendition of “Run On,” a song perhaps best known as Johnny Cash’s “God’s Gonna Cut You Down,” but dates back to at least the mid Forties as a folk song with various titles. Her signature intensity cuts through the ominous track, with a little sinewy background vocals creeping in here and there, as she and Phillips push forward with the track’s plodding acoustic guitar, giving the whole thing an air of menace that dates back to her earliest work.

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