Continuing in his series of explorations into PJ Harvey’s recent reissues and demos, Matthew Barton investigates the songwriter’s difficult 2004 album Uh Huh Her
“I wanted this record to be simple, I wanted it to be ugly in some places, I wanted it to have a swagger to it… but also a real honesty and intimacy” – Polly Harvey, Time Out, 2004
In 2002, PJ Harvey was riding high on the critical and commercial success of her most recent LP, Stories from the City, Stories from the Sea, an album of widescreen classic rock beauty that won her the first of two Mercury Music Prizes. But, as an artist, it seemed that, for possibly the first time, her focus and direction wasn’t as clear as in the past about just where to go next.
Harvey’s reissues campaign – all of her albums reissued with accompanying demos records that, above all, have confirmed her to be not just a songwriter of considerable skill and variety but an imaginative arranger and producer – has been a story, from pretty much the start, of clarity of vision. The demos albums for To Bring You My Love and Is This Desire? in particular have confirmed that Harvey knew exactly what she wanted from her work – those earliest recordings of new songs that she committed to tape contain all of the elements that would be reproduced in the final versions and, in a number of cases, these very tracks were lifted wholesale and given a little spruce up for the final versions.
But, as we get to the project that became Uh Huh Her, released in 2004 after an arduous recording process that Harvey described as “a completely draining, disorientating, exasperating, invigorating experience,” it’s a little too glib (and not strictly speaking true) to say the wheels were coming off – more that they were getting a little rusty.
For the first time, there wasn’t quite that clarity of vision, that cohesion. That’s not to say that Harvey’s records all sound of a piece – while we might talk about ‘the Stories sound’, it is clear that a song like “Horses In My Dreams” is very different in tone and texture to, say, “Good Fortune.” Or if we are talking about Is This Desire? there is a clear contrast between a song like “Catherine” and “Electric Light” or “Joy.” But, within those worlds, the songs inhabit the same space – while the textures may be different, there is the sense that they inhabit the same mood.
Uh Huh Her doesn’t skimp on the variety but somehow the songs feel like a collection of offcuts, of scrappy, scruffy ideas that haven’t quite formed themselves into a whole. Harvey basically presented it as such – the guttural title, the frowzy cover, the inner artwork with its brilliant scrapbook concoction of self-portraits through the years, and with its reproduced little notes and ideas (“Too PJH?” “muffed up plucking”) affixed with rough-cut masking tape. The artwork seemed to say: this is a rough scrapbook of ideas. And on that basis, Uh Huh Her stands as an outlier in her catalogue – it’s clear that the recording quality is nothing new, Harvey always favouring the coarser sound of four-track tape over studio precision, but the presentation of the work is a lot more chaotic, messy, unfocused.
And it figures that Harvey’s messiest album would have the messiest demos album – at a scant 31 minutes and nine songs, it is so far the only incomplete one of the series so far, cutting out the original demos for “You Come Through” and “Cat on the Wall”, as well as the snippet “No Child of Mine.” (It will come as little surprise, perhaps, that there are no ‘demos’ for “The End” or “Seagulls” either.)
Uh Huh Her often seems to give off a vibe of being an album of rough demos anyway – Harvey recorded it entirely by herself and took on all production and instrumental duties for the first time on one of her “studio” recordings, with Rob Ellis laying down drum parts later. So just what could a demos album of an album of… possible demos sound like?
The answer is, of course, both as messy and wonderful as the album (in equal parts) itself came to be. “The Life and Death of Mr. Badmouth” is even sludgier than the album version, devoid of Ellis’ propulsive drumming or indeed of any drum machine pattern at all. Instead, focus is on Harvey’s murky guitar (her rhythmic prowess, as evidenced on these demos, is just stunning) and her elided, mumbled vocal delivery – like a mouth full of venom that she implores the subject to “wash [it] out, wash [it] out.”
The drum machine patterns so beloved on Harvey’s demos surface for the first time on “Shame”, which shares its DNA with “Kamikaze” from Stories. As is the case with many of Harvey’s demos, the vocal is lifted for the finished version but somehow the arrangement is clearer here and the soft, vulnerable beauty in the melody and vocal is laid even barer. It’s a gem, and one of the album highlights. Listen to the beauty in the way she sings the last “shame is the shadow of love” – as tender as the way Harvey described her new work to Mojo in 2004: “I don’t think ‘tender’ is a word that could be applied to anything I’ve written before, but that’s how I feel about this album and I’m really pleased about it.”
A more rudimentary, heavy-handed drum loop forms the basis for both “Who the Fuck” and “The Letter,” which are both even more ragged than the finished versions. The former demo first featured as a b-side to “You Come Through” in 2004 and features a couple of alternate lyrics (“what the fuck you thinking of? Sure ain’t nothing to do with love”). Harvey’s guitar is on fire here, especially on the “you can’t straighten my curls” section – ferocious and vicious. It is spiky and strange, idiosyncratic and rough-hewn, and wonderfully silly.
The same can be said for “The Letter,” the demo of which is charmingly messy and rough and it’s a treat to hear Harvey’s guitar work on the chorus a little clearer. Her vocals are even more abrasive and free of the reverb that made the album version an attractive enough prospect to issue as a lead single. These two songs feature some of her most interesting and unusual guitar work; where much of Stories was about chords and panoramic melodies, these two show her leaning towards something a lot more thorny. I always think of the guitar on “The Letter” as the aural embodiment of the scratchy scrawl of the lyric.
Sandwiched between is “The Pocket Knife,” which shares little in common with either – an example both of the diversity of the album and, some might say, lack of cohesion. The demo is very similar to the finished version, with its charmingly innocent character vocal (Harvey has always been a master at getting into character for voices – one of her most underrated traits as a performer and writer) and its pulsing rhythm, but it brings out some of the elements buried in the finished mix. Harvey’s guitar here, quite apart from the punkish “Who the Fuck,” is just glorious in tone and texture. It’s more akin to the Russian folk songs that influenced some of her work in this period, and foreshadows some of the subsequent material on albums like Let England Shake and The Hope Six Demolition Project (as well as harking back to the Spanish-inflected feel of some songs like “Send His Love to Me” and “The Dancer” from To Bring You My Love). Most curious of all, though, are the call-and-response background vocals that make the offbeat humour of the song all the plainer – “I just wanna make my own fuck-ups (fuck it up! Fuck it up!).” (Listen out, too, for “SOS wedding dress, SOS the wedding stress.”) Harvey has sung these vocals live before, but it’s a treat to hear them immortalised here on the early recorded version. It’s the kind of demo that is both so similar to the finished version but with a detail that changes the mood completely – to the point where you will probably either love it or hate it (for me, I’m in the former camp).
From there, Uh Huh Her zigzags wildly between sounds, moods, textures. Each song seems to have little in common with the one before. “The Slow Drug” is an empty vessel of a song, an evocation of that moment in between sleep and waking, where you feel like you’re the only person awake in the world. It’s an exercise in total stripped simplicity a la “Electric Light”, but is probing and searching where that song is ominous and foreboding. You’d be hard pressed to find something different between the demo and album versions.
That mid-section of the album that features the beautifully tender “You Come Through” and the cacophonous “Cat on the Wall” is really the dilemma of Uh Huh Her – the former is a new kind of writing breakthrough for Harvey, with its delicacy of touch and tender, personal lyric matching the sparse arrangement, while the latter is an unremarkable trudge that never seemed to find its right place: there’s an entirely alternate version called “97°” that featured as a b-side for “Shame”, and the back cover artwork reveals several different iterations of its title – “Caterwaul”, “Radio-Oh-Oh”, “I Heard Our Song”. It isn’t a bad song (although Harvey later recalled playing it live in 2004 and feeling “this isn’t a good song”) but does it stray too close to “too PJH?”
The absence of the demos for these is unusual; Harvey clearly isn’t afraid of letting listeners into her process, but so far there hasn’t been an explanation for their lack of inclusion.
The demo for “It’s You”, meanwhile, is a revelation of sorts, stripped of the liquid descending piano that gives it an entirely different tone on the album. It’s full of scuzzy, detuned baritone guitar (“I was looking for distressed, debased sounds. So all of the guitars are either tuned so low that it’s hard to detect what notes they’re playing or they’re baritone guitars or they’re played through the shittiest amps I could find,” she told Tracks in 2004): the chorus is fascinating to hear without the piano. Instead of opening the doors, the demo seems to close them. It’s claustrophobic, uncomfortable, and strangely alluring.
“The Desperate Kingdom of Love”, meanwhile, sounds even dustier and more old-time in its original version. The acoustic guitar is central, of course, and it feels almost like a lost Bob Dylan song. There’s a timelessness to the song that, again, feels like both a breakthrough for Harvey but at odds with a lot of the other material. Here, Harvey’s voice has a bluesier, more world-weary quality than the hushed delivery on the album and, arguably, it is more beautiful.
Uh Huh Her finishes with “The Darker Days of Me & Him”, and the demo is probably statelier and more elegant than its finished counterpart without the drumbeat. Instead, it has a folksy quality anticipated by “The Desperate Kingdom of Love” and a minor-key sadness that in turn anticipates Harvey’s ensuing direction. Here, her voice is more buried in the mix and the beautiful instrumentation comes to the fore.
Being able to contextualise Uh Huh Her in the Harvey canon as it now stands means it makes a bit more sense: at the time, it seemed a little too much like a strange, unfocused, uncertain follow-up to Stories. Are there moments of supreme beauty? Yes. Insane ugliness? Yes. Customary experimentation? Of course. But does it, and did it, hang together quite well as a whole piece of work? Not really. I find Uh Huh Her a pivotal album in Harvey’s career – after a series of sure-footed, bold artistic statements, this was the first time that she seemed to be feeling around in the dark a little. Not that the songs are weak by any means, but there seemed to be about eight different directions here that Harvey couldn’t quite settle on following fully.
There’s a real tension, and possibly struggle, between those spiky bursts of energy (“Who the Fuck,” “The Letter”), tender love songs (“Shame”, “You Come Through”, “The Desperate Kingdom of Love”), experiments with folk (“The Pocket Knife”) and more ambient sounds (“The Slow Drug”). Uh Huh Her is more of a messy mood than a messy sound. But, looking back, it feels necessary to her development as an artist: it’s the sound of spluttering fumes at the end of the tank – some excellent ideas that are eked, juddering, out, and some indistinct drafts that betray an artist concerned about repeating a familiar formula. It’s telling that the demos highlight some of the more unusual instruments that Harvey was using to supplement her arrangements and an indicator of where she might go next – a place listeners couldn’t really hope to prepare for.
“I couldn’t say this record was an enjoyable experience,” she said. “I think it was a journey that I learnt an enormous amount from, but certainly there were very enjoyable moments… I mean when I look back on it now it was a very difficult, hard and taxing time, and yet I’m so glad I did it – so glad.” And, for an artist as bold, fearless, and apt to throw open the doors to her artistic process even when experiments falter, so are we.