A new reissue shines a light on a most underrated Polly Jean LP
You can draw an unusually straight line through PJ Harvey albums.
Dry keynoted a new artist in an objectifying relationship with her very first two singles, the one that goes “must be a way that I can dress to please him” and the one that quoted Carrie and concluded “I’m gonna take these hips to a man who cares.” On the Steve Albini-cauterized Rid of Me, she fantasize about taking her power back in thrilling revenge fantasies about fucking Casanova in the ass and telling Tarzan to stop his fucking screaming. To Bring You My Love got a bit metaphysical about washing away her sins, with the sex (“Long Snake Moan,” “Meet Ze Monsta”) and parenthood (“Down by the Water,” “I Think I’m a Mother”) sounding positively demonic. Is This Desire? asked a rhetorical question. And then Polly Jean Harvey capped her tumultuous decade of inhabiting these personae with an answer: “This is love, this is love, that I’m feeling.” To elaborate, that song begins “I can’t believe that life’s so complex / When I just want to sit here and watch you undress.”
Stories from the City, Stories from the Sea is first and foremost a relief. The PJ Harvey of her fifth proper solo album (that is, discounting the demos dig where she commanded Robert DeNiro to sit on her face and an avant John Parish double-billing) isn’t just in her first musically documented happy relationship but able to accept it. No matter how fictitious these songs or her entire enterprise, the brilliant concept of this entire trajectory, the feelings and San Diego smile documented on, say, “Beautiful Feeling” are trauma-free, that fictitious clean slate.
That is, they’re trauma-free for the heroine of the story. “All around me, people bleed” she sings on “The Whores Hustle and the Hustlers Whore,” lest you forget the album title, cover, and setting, and it also name-checks syphilis, genocide, heroin and speed. The godhead opener “Big Exit” is, er, loaded with gun metaphors, as the narrator clings to a Someone in a jungle of hollow-pointed chaos. You don’t expect a healthy record to begin with “I’m scared baby, give me the gun.” But it pivots. My friend’s favorite Harvey song is “You Said Something” because of its rare invocation of “falling in love with a person and a city at the same time.” That city and its social castes, class divides nip at your heels even when you’re head over them; Carrie Bradshaw never stooped to acknowledging those. So if Stories is the real Sex and the City, how could it have so much peace and equilibrium in it?
So, okay. There’s plenty of trauma in the astonishing “Kamikaze,” the only performance here that evokes the menacing falsetto of “To Bring You My Love” and likens her suitor to a Trojan horse over the best drum ‘n’ bass a rock ‘n’ roller could buy this side of Soul Coughing. Lana Del Rey herself isn’t historian enough for “Beyond all reason, beyond all my hopes / The call of duty, another war zone / Make me mo-moan” because it’s downright Greco-Roman. That makes “A Place Called Home” this album’s “C’Mon Billy,” with its insistent pleas of “just hold onto me” matched by ripples of drum programming. New York really would become a war zone just shy of a year later, where the helicopters of “This Mess We’re In” became frightfully real on 9/11. But in 2000 it was two perpetually stressed alt-rockers’ backdrop for a bed-in. “I dream of making love to you now, baby,” sings Thom Yorke — you heard me, Thom Yorke — who also notes the sunrise over the freeway of he takes inventory of the sweat beading on his skin.
While “We Float” and “A Place Called Home” continue the light trip-hopping of Is This Desire? and her blues-based darkness is ingrained even in dirges like “One Line” without a knuckle of anger, Stories’ tone is mostly set by its thick, matted guitar jangle, which chimes in small tsunamis on “The Whores Hustle and the Hustlers Whore” and bigger, punker ones on “Big Exit” where love equals immortality on the most Patti Smith music of Harvey’s entire Smith-admiring career. (Is the “eight miles high” reference in “Kamikaze” a sly admission of Byrds flu? Only rock critics ponder this shit.) The first single “Good Fortune,” though, strips away even her urbane surroundings: “I feel like some bird of paradise,” “I feel the innocence of a child.” But the bluesiest thing here is “This Is Love,” and it’s not blue at all, purposeful, driving, aspirational.
Love as mountain peak, located conveniently inside a skyscraper. You can really view the sunset from up there.