SHE'S NOT A SHY GIRL, Polly Jean Harvey. She shrieks with glee while posing naked and raw on the covers of her personal magazines, wiping her ruby red lips dry, ridding them of the stain of her confessions. While she plays dress-up from time to time, getting it on in her filthy red dress, her long snake moan swallows her tiny, tiny frame but can't ever quite catch her big, big voice. But mostly Ms. Harvey performs an unnerving strip show for her sometimes disgusted but always captivated audience.
Stories from the City, Stories from the Sea (Island)
If she spent the first few years of her career publicly exploring a private personality crisis—hating herself one moment, loving herself the next, and then hating herself for loving herself—it seemed that Polly Jean finally found something resembling peace (or whatever) on her fourth LP, 1998's Is This Desire? Sugarcoated and embellished with electronic flourishes, Desire maintained a distance from its creator, with eyes turned instead to Harvey's fictional female protagonists, all of whom were in love, or falling out of it, and having some sort of Biblical crisis.
Harvey fixes the microscope back on herself on Stories from the City, Stories from the Sea, even if her feet never seem to touch the ground. Love, always present in PJ's world but usually feared or hated or scorned, claims its stake in her hardened heart. Misery loves company, but sorry, dears, we're all going to be alone this time out. Ms. Harvey's floating in her own lovely happiness. Now, 50-foot Queenie's not beating her chest about her man-size appetite for self-destruction. Chalk it up to mellowing with age, or put it down to sending her love: Harvey asks, for real this time, is this desire?
The answer, it seems, is yes, sometimes, maybe. She swoons about some boy, he "is the best thing, the best thing" and for once it's "a beautiful feeling." She begs of her unknown lover, "Just hold on to me," and tells him he's "wanted this time." Strange, softened words from the lady who once crowed, "I'll make you lick my injuries, I'm gonna twist your head off." She's still wary, but less so, of her sudden good fortune. She "wants a pistol," she "wants a gun," she's scared, baby, she wants to run—but this time, for once, she doesn't.
Forgive the girl for her schizophrenic leanings. She's in New York, and these are her New York stories.
THE TWO EXTREMES of Manhattan, the fierce ugliness and the exhausting beauty, affect Harvey like a homegrown citizen, forcing her to straddle the fine line between intense love and hate for the city. For "You Said Something," she's "on a rooftop in Brooklyn watching the lights flash in Manhattan." She admits to being torn on "We Float," singing about how her "middle name was excess, but somehow I got lost."
Musically, Stories is bare like the back of the strapless dresses she once wore. There's not a stitch of makeup on her smiling face as she wanders the streets of New York, young and, presumably, in love. Gone are the trinkets of To Bring You My Love, Harvey's most extravagant and extreme (and her most accessible) album. To Bring You always felt like a farce anyway, with Harvey donning more makeup than the whores she portrays in her songs. Though she's always loved to playact the part of the evil seductress, that record was Harvey as Diamanda Galas for MTV, and it glossed over her searing pain with a lacquer so thick you had to clear the shit out of your eyes to see her better.
Returning to the same musical place she started on her debut, Dry, Harvey's as exposed as she was with John Parish on Dance Hall at Louse Point. She's the English artist who's always seemed strangely American—not least because the British are usually too polite to tell you to fuck off the way Harvey can and does. But for all her Patti Smith comparisons, it was Harvey's image that recalled the '70s punk/folk singer, not really her music. Stories from the City is shorn of fancy trimmings and, in its plaintive matter-of-factness, manages to be bold and not boring. Save for some reverb, the record's a candid snapshot; unabashedly rock, Stories from the City jangles like an early '80s R.E.M. record.
Rid of Me remains her most controversial and visceral work, thanks (or no thanks) to Steve Albini's strangulating production, which managed to mangle her voice by alternately drowning or constricting it. Harvey's fury never managed to escape Albini's suffocating grasp. But Rid of Me's terrifying anger showed us how to have a traumatic temper tantrum, which is easy enough if you are as perennially pissed as Harvey. Of course, it's harder to learn how to say those three little words in front of your lover, never mind the rest of the world.
Stories from the City, Stories from the Sea will be released Tuesday, October 31.
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