Orange County Register
25th September 1998
PJ Harvey - 'Is This Desire?'
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If it is, it will nevertheless seem as alien to most people as pure happiness is to PJ Harvey. At any rate, it’s not a normal desire. ‘Healthy’ isn’t a word to be used, either. Maybe obsessive? Unquenchable? And, most frightening, dispirited? For her fourth proper album, following on the heels of one of the ‘90’s’ best albums, the gripping To Bring You My Love, Harvey examines the elusive notion of desire from top to bottom (though mostly n the murkiest of depths) only to end up asking the same question she started with. What’s puzzling, and presumably ambiguous, is Harvey’s storytelling technique here. Where it’s predecessor often flirted and pleaded with men ("Co’mon Billy", "Send His Love to Me," "Working Man"), the new album is devoted to women - an appropriate subject matter for one of the few female rock stars able to vocalise the most traumatic aspects of femininity, but a hard one to grasp over the course of 12 songs that veer from confessional to removed. There are the sad tales of Angelene, and Joy, the latter blinding herself when all hope is lost. There’s My Beautiful Leah, with Harvey adopting as deep (and manly) a voice as possible to sing to her dark-haired lass. There’s the envious, murderous Catherine, a dramatic Perfect Day Elise and existential tales of life in The Garden and down by The River. And then there’s Electric Light, which could be translated as the feminine essence that few can ever describe. "The beauty of her and her electric light," Harvey sings, "tears my heart out every time." It’s anguished, sure, and extremely challenging. Even staunch Harvey fans will have difficulty zeroing in on this album’s rhythm, especially during its most dynamic and moodier moments, such as The Wind, a mostly whispered number that reminds of Waiting for the Man, or the veiled blues figures of Catherine, delivered at an almost inaudible volume. When it explodes (and that’s infrequent and quite industrial), it does so in short bursts, much like Harvey did on 1992’s Dry. When it tightens up to seep into your brain, it does so in ways that are both undetectable and spookily unnerving. Which only confirms Harvey’s vitality. She is the most important woman in rock today, and among the 10 most exciting performers of the past decade. Here she throws down a mysterious gauntlet, daring you to keep pace with her ever-changing moods. Take the chance. She’s worth it. You might enjoy if you like The murkier aspects of Harvey’s To Bring You My Love or her collaboration with John Parish, Dance Hall at Louse Point, Berlin-era Bowie, Tori Amos.

BW