The champion of countryside rights has moved to the city with a clutch of new tales under her belt. In so doing, PJ. HARVEY has made a welcome return to the Words: Mark Robertson
'COME BACK TO WHAT YOU KNOW,’ SAID DANNY MCNAMARA about those could-have-been-huge-but-turned-out-shit indie kids Embrace. Not a motto the boys followed themselves. but it could be a byword for many of this season’s musical adventures.
This autumn L'Z are discarding their post-modern. multi- media. genre-bending antics in favour of a return to straight- forward anthemic rock. As AC/DC sell out gigs all over. people are returning in droves to the rock past they once cautiously hid. Hell. even Kylie is getting in on the act. shedding her faux indie skin to make way for a poptastic disco-drenched comeback.
While her reinvention has not quite been on the scale of
Bono or Ms Minogue. PJ. Harvey has been cocking an ear towards her back catalogue. returning with an album that. while not her most coherent. contains some of the strongest songs of her career. After the concept-heavy. self-conscious stylistics of Is This Desire 3’. Stories From The C it); Stories From The Sea is evidence that Harvey can still produce evocative songs akin to the ones that shot her to prominence in 1991.
In the interim period since 1998's Is This Desire". Harvey has been far from idle. She made her celluloid debut
as Mary Magdalene in the Hal Hartley movie. The Book Of
Life. and has exhibited sculpture in galleries up and down the country. She also relocated for a time to New York. a move that has had a profound effect on her work.
As the title would suggest. this record is (excuse the cliche) a game of two halves. Written partly in New York and partly in Dorset. a three-way production between Harvey. her drummer and sometime arranger. Rob Ellis. and Nick Cave's chief Bad Seed. Mick Harvey (no relation). the album is notable for the contrasting rural and urban environs in which it was written. The New York songs stand proud in comparison to subdued compositions like ’Horses In My Dreams‘ or ‘One Line’. written in Harvey's home territory of England's South West. In the songs of both territories. she reverts to a more personal intimate lyric. a welcome antidote to her previous forays into story-like lyrical fiction.
It is ironic that someone once so outspoken about country folk and their rights (she is openly pro-fox hunting) should be charmed by the wiles of the city.
It is not only the geography ofAmerica‘s East Coast that has inspired this new long player. but also one of its most highly regarded musical exports: Patti Smith. On the album opener 'Big Exit'. Harvey echoes Horses-era Smith with an incessant guitar chug and barked (barking) vocals. Elsewhere ‘The Whores Hustle And The Hustlers Whore' is a hip swingin’ stomp that is so New York it should be stuck in a bagel. smeared in cream cheese and washed down with sticky. black coffee.
Former aggressions have not been forgotten. ‘Kamikaze' is pure Rid OfMe. revisiting those choppy guitars and acerbic vocal lines with Rob Ellis‘ trademark drum epilepsy still driving as ever.
The influence of the Big Apple. however. is the predominating feature on the album. It extends to the album sleeve as she cuts a dash in the middle of a road in flowing dress and huge retro shades. the bright lights of the big city projected behind her.
Despite this immersion in all things stateside. Harvey has still found time to add to her list of collaborators. Radiohead's Thom Yorke contributes backing vocals to ‘One Line” and 'Beautiful Feeling' and shares lead duties with Harvey on ‘This Mess We’re In'. The song was written with Yorke in mind and his plaintive whine. like Nick Cave's baritone growl before. complements Harvey's smooth mid- tones perfectly. As he cries about wanting 'to make love to you baby'. the call-and-answer vocal lines bring out the best in Yorke. Harvey. meanwhile. remains subdued. once again. As with Nick Cave and Tricky before. she takes a back seat to make way for her boys. Not quite the breathless. charged atmospherics of her previous hook-ups (with Cave in particular). but an exquisite performance nonetheless. making a captivating central point for the album.
While all this retro activity goes on in the pop world. P.J. Harvey is one of the few at ease with the achievements of her past. As C2 and Kylie balance precariously on a credibility knife-edge. PJ. Harvey is confidently on top of her game. Going back doesn’t mean losing sight of why you got where you are in the first place. something certain bands would do well to remember.
Stories From The City, Stories From The Sea is released Mon 23 Oct on Island Records.
19 Oct—2 :\o\ 2000 THE LIST21