The Boston Phoenix October 26 - November 2, 2000

[Music Reviews]

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Telling tales

PJ Harvey’s Stories from the City

by Matt Ashare

PJ Harvey

The most telling track and the real centerpiece of PJ Harvey’s new Stories from the City, Stories from the Sea (Island) is “The Mess We’re In.” It’s a bittersweet reflection on a relationship in ruins, a standard enough subject in the realm of pop music. And on its own, it might be nothing more than another pretty, poetic break-up song. But it’s the track that makes sense of the impressions and emotions that surface throughout the album: the frenetic, even violent passion of the opening “Big Exit”; the guarded optimism that takes hold in the next two songs, “A Place Called Home” and “One Line”; the doubts and the cynicism that creep into “Beautiful Feelings” and explode in “The Whores Hustle and the Hustlers Whore” and “Kamikaze”; the naked lust of “This Is Love”; and, finally, the hope that suffuses “We’ll Float,” the closing number. It’s a story from the city — New York City — told or remembered from the seaside village that Polly Jean Harvey calls home in Dorset, England. And it’s sung mainly by Radiohead’s Thom Yorke, with Harvey simply pitching in on the choruses and, as a spoken counterpoint to Yorke’s voice, on the last verse.

That Harvey would turn the spotlight over to a voice other than her own on such a crucial track is, whether she intended it or not, a reflection of both how far she’s come as a songwriter in the last eight years and how well conceived Stories from the City is. The Harvey of 1992’s Dry and 1993’s Rid of Me was so tightly wound and fired up with raw desire that every song seemed to explode out of her, and before she could catch herself she’d find herself commanding Robert De Niro to sit on her face. Even with its relatively refined soundscapes, 1995’s more considered To Bring You My Love was at heart a revenge fantasy, one so deeply rooted in the barbed-blueswoman persona she’d invented for herself in Dry and Rid of Me that it was hard to imagine separating the singer from the songs. And if Harvey seemed to be searching for a middle ground in 1998’s Is This Desire?, well, the title itself was proof that she still hadn’t found what she was looking for.

With Stories from the City, Harvey discovers that if she creates just a bit of distance between herself and a song, the song can and will stand on its own. It doesn’t hurt that she’s got a singer as strong, sensitive, and tragic as Yorke to step into the role of her nearly perfect yet somehow flawed lover — this is the best use of a guest vocal by a confessional songwriter since Greg Dulli invited Scrawl’s Marcy Mays to sing “My Curse” on the Afghan Whigs’ 1994 album Gentlemen (Sub Pop). Singing Harvey’s words, Yorke sets the scene (“I’m in New York . . . We sit in silence . . . I think it’s Wednesday, the evening”) and lets his feelings be known (“Night and day I dream of making love to you now baby . . . ”), and as his voice trails off, Harvey, looking back on the incident, remembers ominously nothing of what might have been said but only that “The city sun set over me.” In the final verse, you actually hear Harvey putting words in Yorke’s mouth as she speaks each line before he sings it, a nifty little device and a reminder that sometimes we rewrite passages from our own past to fit our present circumstances or our dreams for the future.

In fact, Harvey did spend half a year hanging out in NYC while she wrote songs for the album. How much other fact is mingled among the fictions in Stories from the City is beside the point. What’s important is how well she captures the feeling of finding beauty amid hustlers and whores, the rush and regret of falling in love with both a city and a person you just can’t let yourself have — and how voraciously she draws inspiration from those central themes.

There are echoes of the younger, raging, woman-on-the-edge Polly Jean in the lusty, churning blooze of “This Is Love,” a desperate and ultimately failed plea for nothing more than a simpler kind of love — “I can’t believe life’s so complex/When I just want to sit here and watch you undress . . . I can’t believe that the axis turns/On suffering when you taste so good.” There are glimpses of a new, freer-voiced Harvey who sounds an awful lot like a young Patti Smith in “A Place Called Home,” dancing barefoot through Chinatown, Little Italy, to an undulating chord progression. And there’s a steely compassion that surfaces in the final cut, “We’ll Float,” a tense, rueful rumination on the album’s romance that suddenly opens up on the chorus to embrace what may be the most hopeful hard-won sentiment Harvey’s ever wrapped her voice around — “We’ll float/Take life as it comes.” It’s not quite a happy ending, just an unresolved one. And coming from PJ Harvey, that ranks as a pleasant surprise.

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