You're Not Rid of Us
Standout Tracks: "O Stella" and "Victory" are energetic blues-rock, but "Dress" and "Sheela-Na-Gig" are wittier and more unique, and the harsh, complicated strings on "Plants and Rags" give the best sense of where Polly Jean will head as a solo artist. "Water" is fine here but will be considerbly improved by slower, more patient performances in future concerts and "live" bootlegs.
Movie Analogy: Spanking the Monkey, for its brazen rookie irreverence, zesty writing, flagrant provocations, and palpable melancholy.
Rid of Me (1993)
Standout Tracks: The gathering menace of "Rid of Me," coiling up to its final crazy plea; the stuttering rhythms and heavy guitar of "Missed"; the braggadoccio of "50ft. Queenie" and "Man-Size Sextet"; the priceless indictments of inadequate partners on "Me-Jane" and "Dry"; giving good Dylan on "Highway '61 Revisited."
Movie Analogy: Requiem for a Dream, because her emotional force, savvy writing, and musical nuance get a little pummeled, honestly, by the oppressive production. An unforgettable experience that's nonetheless a bit over-the-top.
4-Track Demos (1993)
Standout Tracks: The bare-bones takes on "Rid of Me," "50ft. Queenie," and "Yuri-G" reveal more of the humor, irony, and ambiguity that were sacrificed to pure power on Rid of Me; the same scaling back improves "Hook" and "Legs" immeasurably, recasting each song as a bold assemblage of unlikely parts. Tracks like "Reeling," the comically annoyed "M-Bike," and the evocative "Driving" are so bracingly spare that one is glad she never took them into a real studio.
Movie Analogy: Persona, because PJ opts for solitude, self-determination, and relative quiet. In this envelope of privacy, she strips her art down to what feels like a raw essencethough of course this "essence" is also an effect of fierce, calibrated artifice. A nervy self-deconstruction that also offers a generous window into a great artist's creative process.
To Bring You My Love (1995)
Standout Tracks: The high-octane arousal of "Meet Ze Monsta" straight into the lip-licking nocturnal prowl of "Working for the Man" is the greatest song juxtaposition in the PJ canon; the songs are so taut, sure, and hot with feeling, carrying her from guitar-rock to soundboard experiments literally without missing a beat. On the flip side of the album is the bizarre and bottomless "I Think I'm a Mother," conveying a major psychic break through uncomfortably inscrutable lyrics, deep and distant percussion, and a lowest-possible-register croak. Those are my favorites, but with the possible exception of "Teclo" (a little long) and "Send His Love to Me" (a little on-the-nose), this is kind of a peerless song-set. When "C'Mon Billy" and "Long Snake Moan" are only the sixth or seventh or eighth best songs on your album, you've got a major work on your hands.
Movie Analogy: The Piano, because PJ pumps the blood and the force back into elemental images of water, bush, trek, and wilderness; because the darkly married instruments are indispensable to the narratives she tells and personas she adopts; because she withholds and expresses in tantalizing balance; because the parodic exaggeration of sex, gender, and desire actually serve to denaturalize them and to re-plot their courses, within these songs as well as on future albums.
Dance Hall at Louse Point (1996)
Standout Tracks: After a long instrumental lead-in, "Rope Bridge Crossing" offers a simple, unshowy lyric and a gently forlorn vocal track. "Civil War Correspondent" is a great character piece and an astonishing snapshot of disillusionment, and "That Was My Veil" is one of PJ's most purely beautiful songs, no matter how bruised the emotions it describes.
Movie Analogy: The Mystery of Picasso, because by relieving herself of songwriting duties, PJ calls new attention to her increasingly varied, resonant, and confident vocals. A direct view of a well-established artist at work, though her chameleonic changes of perspective and style still serve to keep her at an elusive remove.
Is This Desire? (1998)
Standout Tracks: The sad, broody, electronically filtered landscape of this album inheres most powerfully in "Angelene," "The Garden," "Is This Desire?" and the haunting "Catherine," though the eruptions of energy in "The Sky Lit Up," "Joy," and "No Girl So Sweet" impart a helpful urgency to the set, and "The Wind" and "Electric Light" are interesting flirts with electronica.
Movie Analogy: Maybe Morvern Callar, because of the menagerie of solitary, sphinxlike women and the odd adjacency of neon textures and rustic scene descriptionsbut this is actually the wrong question.
Literary Analogy: The Complete Stories of Flannery O'Connor, not just because of the restive blend of archetypal landscapes, upset psychologies, and quasi-religious images, but because PJ actually lifts characters and lyrical quotations straight out of "The River," "Good Country People," and other tales.
Stories from the City, Stories from the Sea (2000)
Standout Tracks: After all that electro burbling on the last album, Stories re-discovers PJ's bristling guitar roots in the opening duo of "Big Exit" and "Good Fortune" and the late-breaking gale of "This Is Love," but quieter, chamber-scale songs like "Beautiful Feeling" and "This Mess We're In" (with Thom Yorke) also show themselves to terrific advantage, and "You Said Something" is top-flight songwriting, matching Dylan at his own tricksy and rueful best.
Movie Analogy: New York, New York, because the album's shimmering surfaces impersonate elation and florid abundance, despite all the thrumming loneliness and wounded wisdom unifying the project. Top-volume set-pieces alternate with arresting solos, and big-city energy courses through all of it.
Uh Huh Her (2004)
Standout Tracks: "Who the Fuck?" resembles a perfect, razor-edged relic from the Rid of Me era of abrasive backtalk. "Shame" builds on the writ-large emotions of Stories from the City, Stories from the Sea; "It's You" and "The Letter" on the narrative aspirations and reverberating yearns of Is This Desire?; "Cat on a Wall" on the grungy pluck of Dry; and "The Slow Drug" on the vocal distortions and piano-wire tensions of 4-Track Demos.
Movie Analogy: Bad Education, because the overall effect is curiously circular, recycling previous idioms with more technically consummate execution but less sense of discovery and surprise. Plus, the whole thing peters out a bit at the end...though there's no denying PJ's emotional commitment to the project, and perhaps with the vantage of several years, Uh Huh Her will look less like a summary statement and more like an important pivot into new terrain. Exemplary B-sides like "97°," "The Falling," and "The Phone Song," many of them startling in a way that album-closers like "The Desperate Kingdom of Love" aren't, show that PJ is still sitting atop an imposing stock of brave, live, challenging, and sui generis material.