PJ Harvey "Is This Desire?"
ESSENCE OF DESIRE
New album PJ Harvey fans longed for was worth the wait Few artists succeed themselves like Polly Jean Harvey. Between 1992 and 1995, Harvey released four albums, each one possessing a unique energy and vibrancy imbued by its enigmatic creator. Harvey's ever-evolving canon has spanned many genres, and the entire range of human emotion; it expresses an earnest frankness that is both exciting and disturbing. Her work spins evocative tales of passion and pain, excess and deprivation. Drawing on archetypes and literature, her lyrics have a timeless, classic quality; they sometimes touch deep and ancient, almost genetic, memories.
After a three-and-a-half year hiatus from her solo work (during which she recorded numerous side projects), Polly has returned with a glorious new album. "Is This Desire?" captures the essence of longing, yearning, and heated passion - for both love and possession. Stylistically, it is Harvey's most diverse effort yet, and at the same time, her most accessible.
The lineup is mostly carried over from the 1995 tour, with one important change Rob Ellis, Polly's original drummer, makes a welcome return. Because of Ellis, and the fact that Harvey is again playing guitar during live dates, fans are beside themselves with glee. Filling out the band are close associate John Parish (with whom she recorded "Dance Hall At Louse Point"), Eric Drew Feldman (who worked with Captain Beefheart, The Pixies, Pere Ubu), Joe Gore (Tom Waits), and Mick Harvey (Nick Cave and The Bad Seeds).
While the previous albums have seemed more like song cycles than concept albums, "Is This Desire?" treads on the edges of telling a story. But it's a story like a dream, where threads are interwoven and have an internal logic that makes sense at the time, but don't once you wake up. Images are still archetypal, but less universal - more personalized. "The Garden" describes a fall from grace, but this isn't the biblical Adam and Eve as in the earlier song "Snake." With each song describing the story of a different character, and the stories overlapping, the "Desire" ends up being a kind of personal mythology.
The influence of electronica and Harvey's collaboration with Tricky is heard in several songs, giving this album a distinctly different flavor than previous works. Synthetic drums are used in some songs, but never without combining them with Ellis' crisp but distinctly human beats. On "The Wind," Polly's vocal is a variation of Tricky's signature style, but PJ's doing both the whisper and the airy singing. In danger of being labeled "trip-hop," it starts with a vibraphone roll, then guitar; a two-note bass riff joins in, then it breaks into a cool beat. She even samples herself, using the string tremolo from "Down By the Water."
Musically, "Desire" is a study in contrasts. The mood goes from quiet to raucous, then calm again, several times throughout the album. Overall, the songs are less confrontational and more lyrical than the early albums. Exquisitely understated songs like "Catherine" can be at least as powerful - - if not more so - than satisfying, dirty rockers like "No Girl So Sweet."
The minimalistic "Electric Light" is about as low-key as one can get, musically as well as vocally. Two songs later we are assaulted by the breakbeat, clamorous and overwhelming "Joy." Polly dresses the whole gorgeous mess with a classic "screaming" vocal. Even more powerful live, it shows the outright fierceness that Polly is famous for. You can't help but notice that her voice has more range than ever.
Piano and other keyboard parts are featured more prominently than ever before. "The River" has just soft clouds of guitar drifting by, a rolling and turning piano melody, a slow buildup that never gets to its destination. It also features a beautiful arrangement for horns a slowly building and shifting chord that echoes the structure of the song. Even better is the sumptuous, soaring "Angeline," which starts off the album. Sung from the perspective of a prostitute whose true love is thousands of miles away, it sets the tone of longing - and often loss - for the album.
But Polly hasn't lost her ability to do lurching, staggering, swaggering licks either. Nor has she lost her love of distorting preamps. The rollicking "My Beautiful Leah" proves both of these facts. Still, despite the light heartedness, the theme is the same looking for a lost love who's heart could not ever really be touched. Then there's the little matter of the first single. "A Perfect Day Elise" is the perfect radio gem, telling the chilling story of a scorned lover's murder. Rocking beat, driving bass, dissonant guitar... and those strings. The mix on the album is very different than the single mix, which is slickly produced, heavy on the vocals and strings. The album mix is dirty and creepy in comparison, with long echoes on Polly's voice.
Sometimes a work needs to incubate a while before it's ready to be completed. Sometimes a classic is a long time in coming. Harvey says she needed a break from the industry to rediscover her love of music. It was well worth the wait..."Is This Desire?" is a masterfully crafted album from start to finish; quite possibly an enduring masterpiece.
Jennifer Wallenfels and Jason A. Dour