San Francisco Chronicle 27-9-98
PJ’s Back, More Weary Than Ever
PJ Harvey Is This Desire?
If Iceland’s Bjork is the mercanal diva of art-pop, Polly Jean Harvey is her polar opposite - an Ice Goddess utterly detached from emotion. For the British Harvey, whose namesake band releases it’s fourth proper album Tuesday, it’s a necessary defence mechanism. Were she to give in to the furies that bubble under her skin, there would be a bloody mess to clean up. Recognised as Artist of the Year in 1995 by both Spin and Rolling Stone, Harvey follows up that year’s chilling To Bring You My Love with a largely contemplative album. Just a few of these new songs verge upon the harshness of her usual material; the rest rely on implication.
The album title is perfect. Harvey has the vocal demeanour of someone disgusted with life’s relentless short-comings. Like Billie Holiday, she’s forever sounding weary and winded, as though every mandate conversation or reach for a smoke is barely worth the effort. Predictably, Joy is sexually a wallow in misery, "No hope for joy," Harvey aches, "No hope for faith." In performance, she’s a chameleon, having evolved from the aggressive trio of her early career to the measured, Kabuki-inspired the atricality of the tour supporting To Bring You My Love. On record, however, Harvey has visited the same grounds again and again. That’s mostly because she’s got such strong vocal character. But she also tends to rely heavily on old blues conventions. She hints at a bad thing happening between lovers down by The River; "I don’t mind if you take me down", she sings on No Girl so sweet.
On songs such as the latter, she’s a microphone manhandler, seeking the raspy, overdriven feel of the classic Chicago blues, twice-removed through Harvey’s predecessors in the British acid-blues bands of the late ‘60’s and early ‘70’s.
Increasingly, however, she leans toward the muddier waters of current studio techniques. The crunching electronic footpaths of Bjork’s most recent album, Homogenic, seem to have made a particular impression, especially on the sinister rhythms of The Wind.
In a hushed voice-over, Harvey whispers about a woman who perches in high places and makes "noises like the whales". She sings the song almost sweetly, in a higher register than we’re used to hearing from her. It’s a subtler approach that’s also felt on tracks such as Electric Light, which features little more than a womblike bass line and an under-stated patter of percussion, and the album-opener Angelene, a thoughtful piano based piece.
Returning to the Harvey fold are a couple of Bay Area products, guitarist Joe Gore (Action Plus, Oranj Symphonette, Tom Waits) and keyboardist Eric Drew Feldman (Pere Ubu, Captain Beefheart)
Though it’s been three years since PJ Harvey’s last album, the singer has been busy, collaborating with Tricky and Nick Cave and contributing to a recent tribute to Kurt Weill. She will soon make her acting debut in Hal Hartley’s The Book of Life - playing Mary Magdalene, a woman who needs to be cured of evil spirits. In her mind Polly Harvey was born to that role.