Revisiting my extensive music collection, one artist at a time
Prior to this week, I had probably only played each of these PJ Harvey albums twice, and I never listened to them in the context of the rest of her catalog. My recollection was that they were much more modern and slickly produced than her earlier recordings, but after playing them a number of times I now know that wasn’t the case. Her first album as a solo artist, after the dissolution of her trio, was To Bring You My Love (1995), which might be more mid-‘90s radio friendly in spots, but it’s not a huge departure from her previous work. Replacing her earlier trio is a collection of new musicians, notably guitarist/multi-instrumentalist John Parish (with whom she played in an earlier band) and bassist Mick Harvey (no relation, and best known for his work with Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds). The opening track, “To Bring You My Love,” is also the longest song, and starts things off slow, brooding & bluesy, with more than a hint of the aforementioned Nick Cave (whose discography I will revisit here at some point). It’s a bit ominous, with a simple repeated guitar figure and splashes of organ that give it a church-y feel, as well as some stark imagery (“I’ve laid with the devil, cursed God above, forsaken heaven to bring you my love”). “Meet Ze Monsta” is a stomping combination of blues & glam with an obvious Tom Waits influence. It has a great hook at “Big…black…mon…soon, take…me…with…you.” She sounds absolutely pained & haunted on “Teclo,” with hints of Patti Smith (whose work I don’t know that well, so I’m basing that on my limited exposure to her music). I love her dramatic, over-enunciated singing (“Long goes the night, longer the day, Teclo your death will send me to my grave”). My favorite song on the album, “Down By The Water,” has a simple driving groove and a great guitar tone (or is that organ?). It’s a murder song, about killing her child, with ominous strings. I really like her high-pitched “response” harmonies and her whispered vocals at “Little fish big fish swimming in the water…”
The Patti Smith influence continues on “Send His Love To Me,” a brighter sounding song than the rest of the album with Spanish style guitar and sweeping strings. She delivers a passionate vocal performance with religious imagery (“How long must I suffer? Dear God I’ve served my time, this love becomes my torture, this love my only crime”). Closing track “The Dancer” is metronomic and atmospheric, with great swirling organ & a confident vocal. It sounds unlike anything else on the album, and I love the muted guitar strumming by Parish. The four songs I haven’t mentioned are also pretty strong, but didn’t have the same impact as the six already discussed. “C’mon Billy” is notable for its dark tone that I would describe as gothic Americana, as well as a fabulous string arrangement. Her vocals on “I Think I’m A Mother” sound almost masculine. Although songs like these don’t always make a big impression on me, I’m constantly impressed by her desire to get different sounds from her musicians as well as her own voice. To Bring You My Love is an excellent album that’s up there with her first two studio albums, and continues the winning streak that began with her debut.
That winning streak came to a halt for me with her fourth album, Is This Desire? (1998). It’s far from a bad album, but after listening to it numerous times only a handful of tracks made any kind of lasting impression. I really enjoyed the hushed production and soft vocals on “Catherine,” which offset biting lyrics about her jealousy of the woman in the title (“’Til the light shines on me, I damn to hell every second you breathe”). It’s one of the quietest songs on the album, but also among the most powerful in its simplicity. “The Garden” has an excellent, slightly syncopated programmed beat that’s similar to Fiona Apple (another artist I don’t know that well, but I feel confident about the comparison based on the songs I’ve heard). The poetic lyrics have a biblical, Adam-and-Eve feel, even if the specific meaning is hard to decipher (“He was thinking of his sins…he was looking for his wings”). “The River” is a piano-based song with a slow & steady groove and squalling feedback way in the background. After several listens it grew on me and became my favorite song on this album. The chorus is what won me over (“Throw your pain in the river…to be washed away slow”).
[PJ Harvey – “The River”]
Album closer “Is This Desire?” is a slow, sparse blues tune that starts off nearly a capella before the addition of a tasteful guitar part. It’s closest in feel to her first couple of albums, but with more maturity befitting a woman approaching 30. I like the conversation between the two protagonists, Joseph and Dawn, as they try to decide, “Is this desire…enough…to lift us higher?” The rest of the album has a claustrophobic quality that kept me from fully embracing it. Apparently in the 2-1/2 years between albums, she lived a quiet life at home, which probably led to the overall mood of feeling trapped inside (Her house? Her thoughts?). I’m not sure if there’s any significance to this, but 5 of the 12 song titles here feature female names. “Angelene” has her waiting for her man who’s far away (“2,000 miles away he walks upon the coast…it lays open like a road”). “My Beautiful Leah” is eerie & frightening, with distorted music & vocals that are cut from the same cloth as U2’s “Numb.” “A Perfect Day Elise” has vague lyrics (with vocals buried in the mix) about a woman killing a man, set to a midtempo programmed beat. “Joy” has crazy sound effects and wild, almost unhinged vocals, and it’s as unmelodic and unwelcoming as anything she’s ever done: “No hope for Joy, no hope for faith.” Ouch! I’m sure there are fans who embraced this album more than any of her others, but I feel like I gave it enough of a chance and only found a handful of songs that I would include on a PJ Harvey compilation. Maybe in the future it’ll speak to me, but for now I consider it a slight disappointment.
Looking at the album cover for Stories From The City, Stories From The Sea (2000), with a fashionable Polly Jean Harvey in sunglasses crossing a city street, you just know the music within is going to be different than anything we’ve heard from her before. Although most of the songs were performed by a trio consisting of her former drummer, Rob Ellis, and returning bassist Mick Harvey, the overall sound is much fuller, lusher and more modern. It’s also her most accessible collection to date, starting with “Big Exit,” all bright guitars and Britpop production. The chorus immediately grabs you with her high-pitched voice singing, “Baby baby, ain’t it true? I’m immortal when I’m with you.” “Good Fortune” recalls Blondie in their late-70s punk-pop prime crossed with early Pretenders, and I especially love the way she sings the last word of each verse, i.e. “you-u-u-u” and “lo-o-o-o-ve.” Radiohead lead singer Thom Yorke shows up on a few songs, two of which are among the best tracks here. “Beautiful Feeling” features Harvey & Yorke singing with only Harvey’s guitar for accompaniment. It’s moody & haunting, with Yorke providing various harmonies and alternate melodies, and the lyrics are pleasantly upbeat (“And when I watch you move I can’t think straight…it’s the best thing”). “This Mess We’re In” sounds more like a Thom Yorke song, since Harvey only sings the line “The city sun sets over me” and adds spoken word responses in the final verse. Yorke is known for his soaring falsetto, and he gives a great performance here, which at times had me thinking of Rufus Wainwright.
“The Whores Hustle And The Hustlers Whore” has a great attitude and production to match that awesome title. It’s slightly bluesy alternative rock with an insistent 6/8 groove, and a memorable hook at “Speak to me-e-e-e.” The 6/8 time signature returns, this time with more of a waltz feel, on “You Said Something.” It’s an ode to New York City, with loving references to “rooftop in Brooklyn,” “five bridges” and “Empire State Building.” Lyrically, she vividly recalls the locations of her conversations with someone more than the content of those talks. “This Is Love” is a crunchy, fuzzy, stomping good time with a singular beat throughout and a radio-ready chorus (“This is love, this is love, that I’m feeling”). The final two songs are the longest, at nearly 6 minutes each, and it took a few listens for their charms to take hold. “Horses In My Dreams” is super sparse with vocals on the edge of being raw. It opens up a bit at “I have pulled myself clear,” but overall it keeps the listener in a woozy dream state. This is a great song for late night listening, and is perfectly placed as the penultimate track on the album. “We Float” closes proceedings with a programmed, Portishead-esque trip-hop beat, and the chorus (“We-e-e-e float, take life as it comes”) brings her into Sarah McLachlan territory. The spacey sound of the ebow adds a cool element between the chorus and verse. It might go on a little too long for its own good, and I can imagine a lot of longtime fans disliking the Lilith Fair pop production, but I thought it was an interesting change of pace for her and an excellent way to end the album. So that’s 9 out of 12 songs that were worth discussing, and the other 3 are good but not quite as noteworthy, which makes for an album that’s as good as anything she had done to that point. I imagine there was some backlash from older fans about the album’s more commercial sound at the time, but it didn’t affect my enjoyment at all. In fact, it was nice to hear her sounding happy and extroverted after the previous record’s insular sound.
That takes us past the middle of her catalog. In my next post, which will be relatively brief, I’ll discuss the two collaborative albums between Harvey & Parish. I had never heard either of them before, but I just borrowed both from a friend and after two listens I decided I wanted to spend more time with them and discuss them here. After that, I’ll return to her most recent releases as I wrap up her discography. But that’s still a couple of weeks away, so until then please let me know what you think about the three albums I revisited for this post. Thanks.