Spin - Album Review - December 2000
PJ Harvey: Stories From The City, Stories From The Sea
Well, it's not not her New York record. But more crucially, it's her return to the down 'n' dirty. Polly Harvey has made a career of balancing the fucked-up human and mythic monster - a balance her soul brother Kurt couldn't maintain. Of late, she's retreated into the mythic and the distant: the demon in a red dress of To Bring You My Love, the chilly white-robed portraitist of Is This Desire. But her new disc comes dressed in a blue peacoat, sullied and torn by human immediacy. It still ends up in the heaven of great records.
Ms. Harvey is the strange case for whom a return to straight guitar-bass-drums is risky - it might be mistaken for mere rock. But she has no mere in her. "I'm scared baby, I wanna run," she hollers in the opener, "Big Exit," seemingly before the record has begun: "This world's crazy, give me the gun." She grabs a cliché that might soothe Oasis ("I'm immortal when I'm with you"), but it doesn't soothe her. The music wants to raise her into a rock 'n' roll fantasy, yet a sinister drone holds down the stepladder guitar. She's stuck in the desperate: "But I want a pistol in my hand." It's the literal version of the violence always hiding in her music, in her voice, at the heart of the passion play.
Some beautiful losing still makes the scene: A sweetly miserable duet, "This Mess We're In," is cushioned only by relief that she's singing with Thom Yorke, not Nick Cave. But the record's for beauty, driven by stark claims that can never quite be settled, perpetually agitated by the jolting guitar. As a sort of answer to Is This Desire's title question, she paraphrases Bob Marley: "This is love this is love that I'm feeling." But the swaggering, nervy blues can't come to rest, and the story can't be finished; there's always something left unsaid. "You're the only story that I never told," she breaks down, all evil sexy in "This Is Love." "You're my dirty little secret, wanna keep you so.
" Finally, it's a record about the thrill of the unspeakable. In the shockingly inviting "You Said Something," she recalls, "You said something that I've never forgotten." The record holds its breath, shivering on a Brooklyn rooftop. She adds: "something that was really important." But she never delivers the goods; this dirty little secret stays kept from everybody. The song's like the tattered cloak in which philosopher Pascal was buried, his final proof of God's existence supposedly sewn into the lining. It was never found; whatever the secret was, it was enough to carry someone out of the world.