February 15th, 1996
No musical phenomenon in 1995 racked up more superlatives than PJ Harvey, the edgy rock band led by maverick Polly Jean Harvey.
The group's fourth album, To Bring You My Love, tops Village Voice's annual critics poll and was named 1995's best album by music pundits at USA TODAY, the New York Times and People. It swept the Los Angelas Times critics poll in the biggest landslide in 15 years. Both Rolling Stone and Spin declared Harvey artist of the year.
Ink and accolades didn't translate into sales. TBYML has sold a respectable but unremarkable 225,00 copies since its release a year ago.
"Polly's a rock artist in a pop time," says critic Robert Christgau, who labels Harvey "a good old-fashioned genius."
So why do Harvey's sales pale against off-panned divas Whitney Houston and Mariah Carey?
"Critics don't measure commercial viability," says Scott Becker, publisher of Option magazine, which championed Harvey on its cover last year. "They respect the artist and the work. A critic's job is to be ahead of public taste. The Clash was a critics' band before they had a hit record."
The critical buzz around Harvey focuses largely on the singer/songwriter's ruthless honesty.
"You could say the same about Alanis Morissette's music, but PJ's is in no way sugar-coated," Becker says. "Raw is really the word for it. It's easier for critics to accept music on its own terms, whether it's Captain Beefheart or jazz, which doesn't sell well. What sells is what's poppy and catchy."
Harevy's sales "are pretty darn good for an artist as uncompromising as she is," he says.
TBYML's moderate success ensures continuing support from her label, "so maybe she'll break through next time," says Christgau, who admires Harvey's refusal to "to obey any rules but her own. She's an anomaly and extremely untrendy. That's not a virtue in most artists, but she makes it a virtue becasue she's a genuis."
The album's failure to seduce the mainstream wasn't due to the band's unwillingness to market itself.
"She wasn't lazy about it - she flogged the hell out of that record," Christgau says. He theorizes that consumers were put off by Harvey's grotesque glamor and daring candor. "I don't think she makes a very good sex object. That distinguishes her from Courtney and Alanis, both of whom are unconventional sex objects but nevertheless fall withtin parameters that PJ Harvey has nothing to do with."