Stories From The City, Stories From The Sea
By: Eric G.
Surprisingly, PJ Harvey's last album, Is This Desire?, sort of blew through without really making much of a scene- a problem Harvey had never known since all three of her previous records had been received with such anticipation and critical fawning. In retrospect, it probably was her worst album- a dreary cycle of songs with thuddy, bass-heavy electronics and gray, indulgent lyrics, but anything would have seemed like a let down after the bluesy tension of her masterpiece, To Bring You My Love. Moving to New York City has certainly rejuvenated Polly Jean Harvey, though. She sounds absolutely in love with life, and her fifth album plays like a series of urgent snapshots captured at the heart of the cliched city that never sleeps.
Stories From The City, Stories From The Sea just might be Harvey's finest album to date. It's not as dynamic as Rid Of Me nor as intense as To Bring You My Love, but it features Harvey's most consistent batch of songs. She has sculpted her tension into more than just loud guitars and a terrific wail. Harvey's voice has always been the daunting force that drove her records, evoking lust, fear, insecurity, and rage often within the same song, but she has honed it to perfection and shaved off all the excess baggage. Her delivery can be misleading as she draws you in with a lovely falsetto and then trounces you with her manic wail, but such is her charm. She hammers preconceived notions of femininity as weakness and proves that her powers of seduction have not been played out.
"Big Exit" is a glorious, guitar-driven opener. It pounds triumphantly as Harvey yells half-crazed: "I'm scared baby/I wanna run/this world's crazy/give me the gun." She sounds placated, almost lucid in the chorus, however: "Baby, baby/ain't it true/I'm immortal/when I'm with you." The transition from sour to sweet is so smooth it's infectious. "Good Fortune" is the first single and best encapsulates Harvey's current demeanor. It's a swirl of reverb-drenched, jangling guitars, upbeat, practically joyous vocals, and an instantly memorable chorus. It's clearly her most commercial single but at the same time her most rewarding: "Threw my bad fortune/off the top of/a tall building/but I'd rather have done it with you." Harvey sounds confident and, dare I say, happy.
That is not to say that Stories From The City… doesn't have its dark moments. "A Place Called Home" surges amidst twinkling keyboards, chiming guitars, and Harvey's sullen falsetto. Every single song grabs hold of you- like it's staring you in the face. The mid-section of the album benefits from backing vocals by Radiohead's Thom Yorke, whose emotionally stirring voice perfectly suits Harvey's stark, modern ballads. "Beautiful Feeling" is totally stripped down to Harvey and her low-end guitar. Yorke's voice soars in the background and sounds warm and synthetic when it coincides with Harvey's. He emerges from the background to sing lead on "This Mess We're In." It's somewhat strange to hear Yorke singing Harvey's sexually charged lyrics: "Night and day/I dream of/making love/to you now baby/love-making/onscreen", but he pulls it off as though he's always been a romantic crooner.
The best thing about Stories From The City… is that it explores all of Harvey's moods and themes, whereas her earlier albums (particularly Dry and Rid Of Me) were very singularly focused…on her vagina. Harvey spent the 1990's exploring her sexuality as it related to her role in rock- always glitzy, always glam but open and vulnerable all the same. She abandoned her guitar after only two albums to play the role of a dolled-up chanteuse on 1995's To Bring You My Love. She seemed to hide behind the technology on Is This Desire? and the album suffered accordingly, which presumably led to her re-introduction to the guitar for this album. Abandoning the guitar may work for bands like Radiohead, but PJ Harvey isn't the same without it.
"You Said Something" is the highlight of the album. Somewhat uncharacteristic for Harvey- it's got a folksy, retro feel even though it's just straightforward rock and roll. Harvey tries to assume the role of a typical singer-songwriter: "On a rooftop in Brooklyn/one in the morning/watching the lights flash/in Manhattan/I see five bridges/the Empire State Building/and you said something/that I've never forgotten." It's a moving if not nostalgic song, but Harvey's ability to sound like a simple little girl makes it work without falling into any embarrassing trappings. "Kamikaze" is abrasive rock the likes of which we haven't seen since Rid Of Me. "This Is Love" also harks back to Rid Of Me with its stomping grit.
The album closes with two stunningly beautiful ballads. Harvey sings "Horses In My Dreams" with a deliberately strained inflection while a light piano and bass meander solemnly in the background. "We Float" is slightly more upbeat rhythmically but the darkest song of the album lyrically: "I was in need of help/heading to black-out/'til someone told me 'run on honey before somebody shoots your goddam brains out.'" Then the bass surges and Harvey sings something as simple as "We float" and it sounds like a lullaby. The whole album is like that. It feels like Harvey is singing only to you. I don't know about you, but this album just snuck into my top five for the year.