PJ never really seemed to care about what was "in" -- happily, she does not worry about the "zeitgeist" -- but her first two albums fit in with the low-fi indie punk sound that was really dominating college rock/"alternative" music in the early '90s. She produced Dry on her own, and Steve Albini "recorded" Rid Of Me, and both were very raw and brutal.
When it was first released, To Bring You My Love reminded me a bit of U2's Achtung Baby on a few levels. Like that album, it is completely different from what came before it. And like that album, you can sit and listen and try and figure out how the sounds you are hearing are being made. Are they from "live" instruments, or something else? Both albums are also a complete cycle of songs. And both were made the with help of the man named Flood. (I think that both artists were managed by Paul McGuinness at the time, so that may not be surprising.)
How different was To Bring You My Love from Rid of Me? Well, "50 Ft Queenie" was from Rid of Me.
To Bring You My Love introduced itself with "Down By The Water."
I thought, and still think, it is that it was a classic blues record. I don't know who else felt that way. It was 1995, and blues was it's own niche. Blues in 1995 was Buddy Guy, Otis Rush, Clapton, et al. I'm sure that few of the people listening to blues music in '95 were checking out PJ Harvey. But I feel like this album captured the haunting essence of the blues, and brought it to a new place, in a way that few other artists have been able to do since the '60s.
And don't get me wrong, I am always happy for artists like Stevie Ray Vaughan and Gary Clark Jr. who have a real reverence for the original blues, and play it pretty straight (albeit with much more distortion on their guitars) make a big splash and turn younger fans onto the blues. I think it's important and awesome to preserve it in something resembling it's original form(s).
But the thing that excited me about PJ's album -- one of the things that excited me -- was that this sounded like a haunted blues album, something Muddy Waters may have done before Chess, maybe something Howlin' Wolf would have done once upon a time. More than that, it reminds me of Robert Johnson, far more than (with all due respect) the Eric Claptons of the world do. There's a lot of heartbreak, death and revenge on this album. The guitar solos aren't the point here. It's the creepy, intimidating vibe. It's not an R&B version of the blues, it's not joyous. It's about a sorrow that will never go away.
The album came out at the right time. Back then, everyone was trying to be on top of whatever the new, cool new artist was, and PJ was actually having her (cough) zeitgeist moment. Everyone knew who she was, there was a lot of anticipation for her album, and the first single, "Down By The Water," ended up being a hit, relatively speaking, getting on MTV and I think even on the radio. For some reason, it shocked me that there was a PJ Harvey song that everyone seemed to know. I always thought she'd be like a secret, cult artist, and now everyone seemed to know who she was. That happened a lot during that time period, which I thought was a very cool thing. It was an era where the coolest music actually had a chance to be the most popular. Without pandering. Which is kind of the opposite of our current era, where "relevance" = a combination of social media following and impressions in the news cycle.
Every song is amazing. "To Bring You My Love" is one of the best opening tracks for an album, "The Dancer" is one of the best closers, and everything between works, and it works in the order it is in. "Down By The Water" is the seventh out of ten songs, I think it's rare for a single to come that late in the track list. But it works perfectly there. Every song is where it belongs.
These days, PJ has gone back to cult status, and seems happy with that. She may not be the artist the media is obsessed with, but she's the only artist to win England's Mercury Music Prize twice. She has kept making mostly amazing albums in the past two decades. And all these years later, I realize that the U2 comparison that I made earlier is maybe not as apt as comparing her to David Bowie. From here on in, every album not only had a specific sound, but even a specific look. I don't know that many artists who do that these days. But PJ Harvey has always stood out from the noise, and that's as true today as it was in 1995.