Writing this list of 90’s albums has forced me to spend a lot of time thinking about what I value in music. Looking over the final list, I think there’s a few traits that have popped up repeatedly: Originality, emotion, charisma, ambition, and a little bit of weirdness, to name a few.
It’s fitting, then, that the top album would be by PJ Harvey, who I think has come to exemplify all of those traits with her music over the years. I consider her the best artist of the 90’s and one of the best singer-songwriters of all time, male or female. And when deciding which album should be number one on the list, I couldn’t bring myself to pick an album besides Rid of Me. To me, it’s an album that has everything: It’s largely unlike anything that came before it (or since), it has more emotion and angst than anything else I’ve ever heard, it’s the creation of an incredibly distinct artist, and in its own way it’s a work of great ambition and scope.
More than anything else though, Rid of Me is just plain crazy. It is and will always be the definitive “crazy ex-girlfriend” album. I don’t know what happened to PJ Harvey while she was living on a farm in England that inspired this, but few albums have the sense of catharsis and emotional release that Rid of Me does. It wants to shock you, and it does so immediately with its haunting cover art of a topless PJ thrown against a wall with her medusa-like hair coiled around her.
There’s lyrics like “I’ll make you lick my injuries and “I’m gonna twist your head off” from the title track. There’s a song about the hand-job from hell (“Rub ‘Til it Bleeds”), another about Tarzan’s poor girlfriend Jane (“Me-Jane”), and at one point a poor ex-boyfriend has his legs severed by PJ in one of the album’s most harrowing moments.
The lyrics are just part of Rid of Me‘s groundbreaking madness. For the album, PJ brought in Steve Albini, who gives the album his distinctive raw production, full of the kind of noise he helped to pioneer as a member of Big Black and an engineer of the Pixies and Breeders. With its lyrics combined with the production, everything about Rid of Me is taken to the extreme. Many were turned off by Albini’s production, and PJ later released the demo versions of some of the songs on 4-Track Demos for fans put off by all the noise and abrasiveness. There’s also remixes of the album floating around on youtube that put PJ’s vocals higher in the mix.
It might just be that I’m a Steve Albini fanboy, but I’ve always found his production integral to Rid of Me‘s greatness. It’s just another way that the album is completely uncompromising, almost to the point that it seems to be actively antagonizing listeners that aren’t prepared for its full-on assault of the senses. The sound of the live instruments gives the album more life, and as a result makes its contents terrifyingly real.
At the center of all of the carnage and noise is PJ herself. While Rid of Me is extremely conflicted, it’s clearly the work of an artist who is incredibly sure of herself. The way the album forsakes all taboos and conventions, particularly for a female artist, only adds to the its considerable power. On “50 ft Queenie” she flaunts her cocksure bravado and badassery: “hey I’m the king of the world/you wanna hear my song?” While Rid of Me is an album that had potential to alienate a lot of people, it’s as if she knew deep down that people wanted to hear her crazy songs anyways.
In the final track, PJ wails “I’m in ecstasy.” After nearly 45 minutes of blood and guts being spilled everywhere, it’s an incredibly fitting conclusion that represents the album’s unique catharsis.
Rid of Me was released during grunge, the female singer-songwriter boom, and riot grrrl, and at times it’s been lumped in as a part of each of those genres. However, it separates itself clearly from that large pack based on how intense and brutal it is and how fearless its creator was. Much like Loveless, I see Rid of Me as the perfection of an idea. While radio-friendly artists like Alanis Morissette and others gathered more buzz for their anti-boyfriend screeds, none of them compare to Rid of Me‘s artistry and flat-out insanity. In the 18 years since it was made, I still don’t think anything has topped it in terms of sheer intensity and emotion.
Rid of Me was the last album made by the original PJ Harvey trio, as PJ went on to a more artsy solo career with other 90’s classics likeTo Bring You My Love and Is This Desire? She changes her sound and image on every album, and her work is always interesting. But I don’t think she’s ever topped the thought-provoking, ugly descent into madness that is Rid of Me. It’s one of the boldest rock albums of all time, and in my opinion the best of its decade.