The title track of PJ Harvey's sophomore album is a bitter slice of rage that shocked listeners with its raw energy. The singer alternates between quietly begging her unfaithful lover to stay and threatening to twist his head off. "When I wrote 'Rid of Me,' I shocked myself," Harvey explained to Spin magazine. "I thought, 'Well, if I'm shocked, other people might be shocked.' The sound of the words was powerful, and the rhythm felt clean and simple to roll off the tongue. I knew that this was the type of song I was trying to write."
At the time, PJ Harvey was still a trio that included Polly Jean Harvey on guitar and vocals, Rob Ellis on drums, and Steve Vaughan on bass. In the middle of winter, the group moved to a remote house in Cannon Falls, Minnesota, near Pachyderm Studio, where they recorded the album under guidance of producer Steve Albini. Says Harvey: "I knew I wanted to work with Steve Albini from listening to Pixies records, and hearing the sounds he was getting, which were unlike any other sounds that I'd heard on vinyl. I really wanted that very bare, very real sound. I knew that it would suit the songs. It's like touching real objects or feeling the grain of wood. That's what his sound is like to me. It's very tangible. You can almost feel the room."
Harvey, still exhausted from a grueling tour and trying to get over a recent breakup, began writing the song during a miserable stay in a shared flat in Tottenham, London. She recalled: "We were living in a very damp flat with gas heaters, and I had a poky little room at the front of the house. In order to access any of the rest of the house you had to walk through my room. We were on the lower floor, so the people up above us would make noise. I remember starting to write the song 'Rid of Me,' sitting on my bed in my damp front room by the gas heater."
For the sake of her mental health, Harvey retreated to a seaside apartment above a restaurant on Dorset's Jurassic Coast, where she continued to work on songs while taking in the beautiful scenery. "I think the view from your window when you're writing really does inform what you're writing about quite a lot. I need to stare out of a window whilst I'm writing. That helps me find where I'm going. I was by the harbor, so I could see people coming and going in boats, and I could look out at the sea. There was a fun fair that would pitch up in a field to the right of the restaurant every June, so for a while, I had a fun fair outside my window. I'm sure that contributed in some way to Rid of Me."
One Melody Maker writer was so startled when the quietly seething tune exploded into a screaming ball of fury, she crashed her car while listening to it.
Albini suggested that Nirvana record their next album, In Utero, at Pachyderm and sent the band a copy of Rid Of Me to get a sense of the studio's capabilities. "Kurt told me very specifically that he thought Polly’s voice was great on those recordings," said Albini, "He really liked the way her singing came across. He was a fan." (Nirvana did end up recording the album at Pachyderm with Albini serving as producer.)
Rob Ellis told Spin of the album: "It's ugly music, but ugly in a good way. It makes me squirm in places but the reason it makes me squirm is because it is quite close to the bone. Some of the vocals are literally hysterical, mad, crazy. It's a difficult listen because you're not sure whether it's embarrassing or funny or scary or what. But you can't ignore it. It's a pretty un-ignorable record. I'm proud of that."
Juliette Lewis sang this, along with Harvey's "Hardly Wait," in the 1995 sci-fi thriller Strange Days.
Harvey performed this solo on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno in 1993.
This was used on the TV show Halt and Catch Fire in the 2017 episode "Nowhere Man."
We won't be adding this one to our songs often played at weddings
category any time soon, but it was played for at least one special ceremony. "I actually played at my brother's wedding," Harvey told GQ
. "And the song that they requested for me to play was 'Rid of Me.' That's a true story. My own brother."
Harvey enlisted her friend Maria Mochnacz, then a photography student, to shoot the memorable album cover, which captures the topless singer in a bathtub flipping her wet hair. Mochnacz, who went on to become Harvey's regular photographer and video director, described the session in a Guardian interview: "It was the cover of Rid of Me, Polly's second album, and was taken in my bathroom in Bristol. I knew I wanted to make the water on Polly's hair like a strange sculpture, almost solid. I took it in pitch black with a small flash. My camera was butted up right against the wall in my small bathroom with no room for me to look through the viewfinder. I had to tell Polly roughly where to try and direct her gaze. My flatmate at the time was banging on the door, desperate to use the loo, so I had to shout at him to hang on, we were making art!"