Comment: Why PJ Harvey deserves the Mercury prize

This year's Mercury prize had all the usual suspects: winsome troubadours, anonymous dance, coffee-table chill-out... and PJ Harvey. In picking her, says Alexis Petridis, the Mercury judges have made the perfect decision

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Polly Jean Harvey wasn't the only person to be "absolutely shocked" by the victory of her album Stories from the City, Stories from the Sea in Tuesday's Mercury music prize. The bookies had favoured downtempo duo Zero 7's Simple Things. The shortlist was heavily weighted towards modish acoustic singer-songwriters: Ed Harcourt, Turin Breaks and Tom McRae were all nominees. Harvey had already been up for the award twice before. The Mercury prize is renowned for supporting new artists - the past four prizes have been awarded to debut albums - and Harvey is a virtual veteran, her career stretching back over a decade.

It may have been a surprise, but Harvey's victory was warmly received on the night. The Mercury-prize judges like to pride themselves on discussing nothing but the music, and Stories from the City, Stories from the Sea is a great album. Nevertheless, there's a sense that Harvey's award is something of a long-service medal. She's a rock artist, unaffected by the dictates of fashion, who has managed to make consistently challenging and surprising music. She has carved out a lengthy career despite a complete refusal to compromise any aspect of her work.

In addition, this year's Mercury shortlist was like the current British music scene in microcosm - winsome troubadours, anonymous dance duos, prog rock-inspired doom-mongers and coffee-table chill-out acts. All in all, it was a bit short on characters. Harvey's records may frequently have been hard work, but character is something that she has in abundance.

Her 1992 debut album Dry married the distorted, stripped-down rock of the Pixies and Throwing Muses to a distinct lyrical voice: feminine, raw and startlingly visceral. Its most celebrated track, Sheela Na Gig, took its title from the sculptures found in Norman churches of an old woman squatting and exposing her vulva.

Harvey dressed the part of the angry feminist - black clothes, Doc Martens, hair scraped back in an unflattering bun - yet refused to be co-opted into the contemporary riot grrrl movement of shouty women with guitars, which she dismissed as "an excuse to attack men". She posed topless on the cover of the NME, abandoned her stern clothes in favour of flowing 1940s gowns and, for her second album, teamed up with Steve Albini, the Chicago musician, producer and enfant terrible.

It was hardly a move designed to appease her feminist fans. Albini went on to produce Nirvana's In Utero, but back then was best known for fronting Big Black and Rapeman - both bands had faced accusations of rabid misogyny. The result of their collaboration was Harvey's first Mercury-nominated album, the blues-influenced Rid of Me, as vituperative and awkward as a major-label debut has ever been. "I'll never give people what they want," she claimed at the time. And as if to prove the point, she followed Rid of Me with a collection of frankly terrifying home-recorded demos. The cover featured Harvey smiling in a bikini.

Her 4 Track Demos were so unpalatable that even 1995's To Bring You My Love, packed with songs about infanticide, kerb crawling and Satan, seemed commercial by comparison. The accompanying tour saw Harvey, once a nervous and introverted live performer, dancing onstage in a pink jumpsuit. The album prompted her second Mercury nomination and two Grammy nominations, but she didn't make another record for three years. Is This Desire? was released after the collapse of her relationship with singer Nick Cave, amid rumours that the twig-like Harvey was suffering from an eating disorder. It saw her experimenting with sampling and keyboards - with cacophonous, virtually unlistenable results.

By contrast, Stories from the City, Stories from the Sea is Harvey's most straightforward album since Dry. It marks a return to guitars and sports a relatively up-beat lyrical bent. It even features a surprisingly witty cameo from Radiohead's Thom Yorke on This Mess We're In: "Day and night, I think of makin' love to you now, baby," he sings, a sentiment utterly at odds with his trademark deathly moan.

Despite such moments of lightness, the album retains a startling strength. At Tuesday night's Mercury ceremony, the ferocity of Harvey's videotaped performance of Good Fortune made other, younger nominees' short live sets seem timid and polite by comparison.

As with the Booker prize and the Perrier comedy award, it has become annual sport to knock the Mercury music prize. Last year, rent-a-quote former Creation boss Alan McGee decried the awards as "a crime against music". And this year, the NME demanded to know why Ash's Free All Angels had not made the shortlist. Blur vocalist Damon Albarn's side project Gorillaz - initially the bookies' favourite nomination - withdrew altogether, comparing the prize to "a dead albatross".

Under the circumstances, it's hard not to feel a twinge of sympathy for the Mercury judges. Essentially they are in a no-win situation. If they pick a commercially successful winner, they are accused of pandering to populism, as happened with 1993's winner, dance act M People's Elegant Slumming. If their choice is too obscure, they risk seeming remote and irrelevant, as was the case in 1999, when Talvin Singh's Asian-influenced OK beat Blur, the Chemical Brothers and Faithless to the award, an inexplicable decision that was out of step with public opinion.

But choosing Harvey's Stories from the City, Stories from the Sea sends out a clear and rather cheering message about the Mercury prize. It has rewarded an innovative, individual and fiercely independent artist. In an era where bands find their contracts terminated the instant that their albums fail to shift sufficient units, it has highlighted the virtue of sticking with an artist though a long and frequently difficult career.

On Stories from the City, Stories from the Sea, Harvey finally strikes a balance between self-expression and listenability. The record loses none of the power and character that has always informed her work, but, unlike its predecessor, it doesn't make you want to run screaming and crying from the room. In picking it as this year's winner, those Mercury judges may finally have come to a decision with which no one can seriously argue.


Alexis Petridis

The GuardianTramp

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