Classic Music Review: Is This Desire? by PJ Harvey

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A master work by a courageous and sensitive soul. Click to buy.

Polly Jean Harvey’s most endearing quality is she can’t stand doing the same thing over and over again. She told Rolling Stone, “When I’m working on a new record, the most important thing is to not repeat myself . . . that’s always my aim: to cover new ground and really to challenge myself. Because I’m in this for the learning.”

That admirable character trait also saved her career.

Like nearly everyone else in the early 90’s, PJ played noisy, grungy music loaded with fury and angst. It was the perfect antidote to the overproduced pap of the 1980’s, and a blessed deliverance for the youth of the time who hungered for music with an edge. The problem with this mini-revolution turned out to be the problem with nearly all revolutions: it was manifested anger with no purpose other than to get it out of one’s system. While it sounded quite exciting and outrageous at the time, I listen to it now and it seems a nihilistic, self-indulgent bore, from Nirvana to Hole to Sleater-Kinney. Most of the artists of that period painted themselves into a corner, raising noise and rage to the level of artistic dogma, and deservedly faded into niche-level irrelevance.

Women artists were seriously on the rag during that time, and most of them didn’t make it past 1995. The two that did were Ani DiFranco and PJ Harvey, who both discovered that there’s more to life than being pissed off about it. Neither of them sold out, however; they simply grew up and explored different ways to express themselves. For Ani DiFranco, her lyrics became less about me-me-me and more about shared experience; her albums from Out of Range through the rest of the 90’s contain several poetic masterpieces. The difference between Ani and PJ Harvey is that Ani’s music remained attached to the guitar, while PJ’s music . . . well, you never really knew what the fuck was going to come out of those speakers. I don’t think I’ve ever heard a PJ Harvey album that I liked the first time through, and that’s a good thing. She challenges my expectations and my biases with every release, and I admire the hell out of her for doing so. The one thing I do know when I buy a PJ Harvey album is that she will give it her best, and that what comes out will be an authentic representation of who she is at a particular moment in time.

I have resisted reviewing PJ Harvey because I always ran into a problem: one review of one album never seemed enough, so I found myself in a state of paralysis, unable to choose which one to do first. My paralysis led to me leaving her off the original Great Broads list, even though I think she’s one of the greatest broads of them all. Lucky for me, my readers forced my hand by complaining about her omission. Now that I had to get off my ass and get cracking, I managed to get unstuck by letting PJ make the decision about which album I should review. I read somewhere that she felt most proud of Is This Desire?, so here we are.

Released three years after the commercially successful and critically-acclaimed breakthrough album To Bring You My Love, PJ’s beloved child was met with a comparatively lukewarm reception from leading critics (NME, AllMusic) and the angrier sect in her fan base. Critics complained that the album was too “morose” (Oldham, NME), that it offered “diminishing rewards” and was her “least-focused effort to date” (Erlewine, AllMusic). Fans bemoaned the relative lack of kick and diminishing fury. The critical perspective is absolutely worthless because the critics made the fundamental error of comparing this album to the last, a short-sighted view if there ever was one. As for the fans wanting more noise and bombast, PJ was entirely right to take the attitude of “not really caring what other people thought about it,” as she told Filter magazine. Authentic self-expression should be the primary motivation driving any artist, not the pathetic need to keep the morons happy. In Is This Desire? PJ forged her own path, combating inner demons and health problems in addition to the challenges inherent in the search for true self-expression. The result is a work that explores aspects of the dark side of human nature with unrelenting courage through complex and beautiful poetry and carefully thought-out arrangements that accentuate the emotional impact while occasionally providing moments of stark beauty. Her exploration of the complex nature of human desire can be a painful experience at times, but this is because largely because PJ Harvey exposed truths and paradoxes that our male-dominated world tends to trivialize.

Defying expectations from the start, PJ goes alt-country in the compelling opener, “Angelene,” a song built around a phrase in one of J. D. Salinger’s Nine Stories, “Pretty Mouth and Green My Eyes.” P. J. takes that phrase, itself plucked from a horrid love poem penned by one of the characters, and builds her own character sketch about a white trash hooker holding on to the slim hope that there’s a man out there 2,000 miles away who will come to rescue her with real, unpaid love:

My first name, Angelene
Prettiest mess you ever seen
Love for money is my sin
Any man calls, I’ll let him in

Rose is my color and white
And pretty mouth and green, my eyes
I see men come and go
But there’ll be one who will collect my soul and come to me

Two thousand miles away
He walks upon the coast
Two thousand miles away
It lays open like a road

While some have expressed the opinion that the many female characters who populate Is This Desire? represent different aspects of PJ’s personality, proof of that theory remains a secret between the rather reticent songwriter and her therapist. What I hear is incredible empathy for the kind of woman who is often denied empathy, the woman who sells her body and goes through the pantomime of love without receiving any. PJ sings this one in her deeply pleasing natural contralto, mostly in a tired, world-weary voice with a touch of Oklahoma in her phrasing. The arrangement alternates between soft and not-quite-loud, with her vocal in the first verse supported only by simple guitar chords. It’s only in the verses of hope that her voice rises out of its torpor and shows that Angelene still has the life force within her. The laid-back country feel of the song is enhanced with good thick bass from Mick Harvey that gives us the sense that Angelene is digging deep into her soul to find meaning. The last line of the song shows the care PJ put into the lyrics—it seems to repeat the opening line “My first name, Angelene,” but what she really sings is “My first name is Angelene,” a more affirmative acceptance of self than the tone of the first line, which sounds like someone mindlessly filling out a form or trying to recall her name while suffering from a hangover. “Angelene” is a tremendously moving and insightful song combining great power with subtlety, and tells you right from the start that PJ has taken her art to a higher level.

No, you never know what the fuck is going to come out of those speakers, and “The Sky Lit Up” is as far away from “Angelene” as you can get, an electronic-heavy pounder where PJ sings of the exhilarating experience of a night out in the bright lights of the city. The woman singing the song knows she’s fucking hot, feeling her beauty and the power that comes with it. PJ moves from husky-sexy to an orgasmic high soprano in the closer, as if she’s experiencing the end of a memorable night of libidinous release. Or are we? Remember, the title of the album is the question “Is This Desire?” and the line that gives me pause is “And I’m lighter than I’ve ever been.” Having spent a good amount of time in my college years grabbing all the spotlight and sex I could get, I know that the experience is relatively empty in comparison to the deep, loving relationship I have now. Back then I was fueled solely by desire and completely incapable of real love. I had a great time, but really, it was just a warmup for the real thing. Personal experience aside, this is still a pretty hot song that shows that PJ can bring it any time she wants to.

Shifting gears once again, PJ gives us the endlessly rich “The Wind,” a piece dominated by PJ’s whispered recitation of the lyrics and contrasting soprano vocal over a dance floor beat punctuated by strings. The story is of a woman named Catherine who has abandoned her high-born life in the city for a life of isolation “high up on the hills” where she only wants to listen to the wind blow. Her dreams “of children’s voices and torture on the wheel” have caused some to suggest that she’s imagining children being tortured on the wheel. The problem with that view is that the conjunction separates the two thoughts, so I interpret those images as simply afterimages of her former life. The lines “But now she sits and moans/and listens to the wind blow” give me the impression that she has discovered her personal version of “Om,” a way of connecting her powerful inner vibrations to the power of the wind. Down in the village below, a young girl assumes that Catherine must be lonely and urges her mother to help find Catherine a husband, and the mother responds, rather tritely, that it should be “A handsome one, a dear/A rich one for the lady/Someone to listen with.” I’ve always found English class consciousness fascinating in a gruesome sort of way, and the girl’s fantasy feels like she’s playing with dolls dressed in their finest, arranging fantasy marriages for them in a grand cathedral. Personally, I think Catherine has chosen solitude and there isn’t a man on earth capable of understanding her. PJ’s decision to whisper the opening stanzas was inspiration personified; I love the way she elongates the word “washhhhhhh” in her recital, an onomatopoeic confirmation of the wonderful feeling one has after a good bath or shower. I may not have entirely grasped the meaning of “The Wind,” but I love this song with a passion.

The question mark at the end of the album’s title becomes more important with the next two songs, both of which deal with twisted desire. “My Beautiful Leah” is the song that apparently pushed PJ over the edge for a while, a tale of a woman engaged in the perpetual search to find either meaning in her life, someone authentic who genuinely needs her, or both. PJ plays the role of hapless male lover in search of Leah, a woman with “her lovely face twisted” who is likely suffering from a form of bipolar disorder. The narrator emphasizes her neediness (“She was always so needing”), indicating that Leah is a psychological black hole and that he is likely a co-dependent participant. Some people consider this drum-kit-and-dark-synth track the highlight of the album, and while I’m not sure about that, I think the sickness of the narrator is effectively portrayed. Even more disturbing to me is the album’s single, “A Perfect Day, Elise,” a song about an obsessive male who believes he owns Elise after one roll in the hay and kills her to prevent anyone else from ruining his perfect day. Part of me wishes that the swaying rock rhythm here had been used for a song about pure desire, but PJ’s choice does make the piece much more impactful.

The middle section of this album definitely qualifies as a heart of darkness, and the song “Catherine” deals with the ugliness of obsessive, unrequited desire. PJ identifies the object of desire as one Catherine De Barra, and I’ve read a few different theories of this person’s identity. The author of the book Disruptive Divas suggests that it might be one of two Catherines who lived the island of Barra in the lower Outer Hebrides, but even she concedes it’s a mystery. It’s not a bad theory, as the essence of Catherine is her unattainability, and the image of a distant island complements the image. The bass on this song has the feel of a feverish heart, the muffled soundtrack mirrors the inner dialogue, and PJ’s lyrics graphically depict the corroding bitterness that consumes the narrator:

Catherine De Barra, you’ve murdered my thinkin’
I gave you my heart, you left the thing stinkin’
I’d shake from your spell if it weren’t for my drinkin’
The wind bites more bitter with each light of mornin’

I envy the road, the ground you tread under
I envy the wind, your hair ridin’ over
I envy the pillow your head rests and slumbers
I envy to murderous, envy your lover

‘Til the light shines on me
I damn to hell, every second you breathe

The meaning of “Electric Light” is more obscure; it all depends on how you interpret the word “siren.” Is it the image of a beautiful woman surrounded by neon lights or is it the sound of the police siren responding to a reported rape? The first interpretation makes the narrator a lonely soul in a two-bit room in the heart of the city yearning for the woman’s image to come to life; the latter implies he’s a murderous rapist admiring his work. Either interpretation raises questions of the meaning and realization of desire: the kind that languishes in neglect and the kind that kills. The bass-dominated arrangement could support either—it’s an eerie, mysterious and very compelling piece.

Even more compelling is “The Garden,” a poem set over a slow funk beat enhanced by well-timed appearances of organ, piano and strings. The build in the arrangement is exceptional—the shift to single piano notes in the later verses introduces a sense of foreboding, and the long lyrical pause before the last recitation of “And there was trouble” turns the line into something close to hair-raising. The lyrics appear to describe two men meeting in the garden for a moment of man-to-man intimacy:

And he was walking in the garden
And he was walking in the night
And he was singing a sad love song
And he was praying for his life

And the stars came out around him
He was thinking of his sins
And he’s looking at his songbird
And he’s looking at his wings

There, inside the garden
Came another with his lips
Said, “Won’t you come and be my lover?
Let me give you a little kiss”

And he came, knelt down before him
And fell upon his knees
“I will give you gold and mountains
If you stay a while with me”

And there was trouble
Taking place

At this point, we’re not sure if the trouble is due to the illicit love, the strangeness felt by two newbies to the gay scene or what. In the last sequence, PJ throws a wrench into that interpretation:

They kissed and the sun rose
And he walked a little further
And he found he was alone
And the wind it gathered ’round him

Now we’re looking at the possibility that the man was meeting with his Jungian shadow, the part of the self that is repressed. What I realized that both interpretations could be simultaneously true, making this a marvelously constructed tale of repressed desire. When PJ is on her game, her lyrics are akin to the experience of walking past the mirrors of the fun house—there are multiple interpretations possible, depending on your perspective. People who detest ambiguity will feel uncomfortable with such a poet, but I find PJ’s work endlessly fascinating.

“Joy” combines more than a touch of Bjork with a Patti Smith vocal, a combination that is distinctly difficult to listen to. I think that’s the point: it’s hard for people to think about or even look at people with disabilities. PJ gives a credible performance in the role of a woman without hope or the ability to change her circumstances. Here she’s dealing with the impossibility of manifesting desire, the bitter truth of permanent virginity expressed in the phrase “Innocence so suffocating.” This terribly ugly (understandably ugly) song is followed by the melancholy beauty of “The River,” where PJ works with the imagery of baptism and the belief that one can “throw your pain in the river.” This is a fascinating song on many levels, for a superficial read could lead you to believe that PJ is talking about the empty promise of Christian baptism, but she could also be talking about Lethe, the river of forgetfulness and the virtue of a life with no regrets. The image of washing is repeated here, indicating that the true theme of the song is probably closer to the guilt some people feel about desire itself. Again, whatever your interpretation, “The River” is a beautiful song and PJ’s natural voice, with its tone of weariness and doubt, is perfect for it.

“No Girl So Sweet” is the doppelgänger of “The River,” using the same chord combination but shifting to heavy electronics. This is the one song on the album that turns me off, probably due to its intensely Christian imagery. The album ends with the title track, also steeped in biblical references. The question posed here is whether or not desire can be transcendent, a question to which I would naturally respond, “Fuck yes!” I will admit that it is a question that has been debated for centuries, with Gautama coming down on the side of extinguishing desire and Blake on the side of letting it rip (“sooner murder an infant in his cradle than nurse an unacted desire”). I’m on Blake’s side; PJ is able to hold both truths simultaneously, and that’s why she’s the poet and I’m the admirer.

It’s regrettably understandable that the male-dominated field of music criticism didn’t get this album. The criticism that the album is “too sad” is such an obtuse perspective that it takes my breath away, but I’ve learned to accept male obliviousness as a fact of life. This is not to imply that all men have their heads up their asses, but our societies have a long way to go before they reach the tipping point where women are understood and accepted for who they are.

I don’t consider myself a feminist, and neither does PJ Harvey. The songs on this album are not solely about women, and the truth is that desire can become a very ugly, distorted thing in any human being, regardless of gender. Beneath the layers of insightful complexity in Is This Desire?, PJ Harvey asks a very basic question that you could apply to almost any aspect of the human experience: “How could something that can be so beautiful become so destructive?” While asking that question opened doors into the dark side of human nature, PJ’s journey into that darkness is to be admired as a courageous attempt to shine a light on issues that we have romanticized and trivialized . . . and lead to real pain for real people.

6 responses

  1. Yet another fascinating thoughtful review.

    I was wondering which PJ Harvey album would be put under your microscope and had a distinct feeling it was gonna be this one – it’s the only one of her albums which I need some guidance with! It’s been a few years since I last gave it a spin because out of all her work this was the album I liked the least. Others have tried to turn me on to it (diehard fans online tend to rate this as her best album) but your appraisal and thoughts are insightful enough to probably help me get more out of this than I could before. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not a “bad” album at all – I think Polly is utterly incapable of doing that, just it didn’t hit me the way her work usually does.

    I first encountered her in 1993 on a free sampler cassette (remember those?) with a magazine. It was a compilation of various Island Records acts. I wasn’t expecting it to be at all interesting so late one night, I got stoned, put on the headphones and hit play. Sure enough it was all going through one ear and out the other until I had my head blown open by one track. As it ended, it was one of those very rare “WTF was THAT?” moments – I looked at the cassette case to see who and what it was and swiftly rewinded the tape to listen to it again, and again and again. It was Polly’s 4 track demo version of “Rid Of Me” – it’s raw primal energy and intensity just left me breathless. From that point on, I’ve been a lifelong fan and it’s been an interesting journey as she’s gone from one song to the next from album to album making one wonder what she’s gonna do next. I’ve always enjoyed her demos more than the actual completed versions on the albums since I love the starkness in them and for me highlight what Polly is getting at much better when uncluttered which was why – I think – Island released the 4 track demos album to complement the “Rid Of Me” album which was an earsplitting production.

    When this album came out, there was the usual confusion wondering what she was up to as she changed her image yet again and compared to what had come before, this was a more mellower and moodier affair and definitely least accessible (which is saying something given how odd and diverse her two previous albums were, including that collaboration with John Parrish). I was buying all her 7 inch singles too since she always put exclusive tracks on the B sides and the ones from this era were really strange, including one where she sang lines from “Chirpy Chirpy Cheep Cheep” highlighting it’s actually a rather melancholic lyric! The album wasn’t one I could listen to as much as the ones that came before and after, so this kinda remains her most obscure album for me. The one that came next was and remains her most accessible and somewhat consistent but wonderful.

    Polly Harvey remains the only musical act of the last 25 years (for me) that remains consistently challenging, unpredictable and interesting – a genuine original so it’s nice, if no real surprise that you also greatly appreciate her talent and work. Maybe over time you’ll also give the rest of her work the ARC treatment since it’s very worthy and not enough people listen to PJ Harvey!

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  2. This is a great album, and I wonder if PJ took the apathetic response to it particularly to heart: ‘Stories From the City…’ seems a deliberate attempt to make something more commercially comprehensible by comparison (that isn’t to cast negative aspersions on it) and response to the record that came before it. And could anyone blame her? She obviously poured her heart into ‘Is This Desire?’ But the great thing about her is that that applies to everything she does really. Some albums I like more, some albums I like less, but at the least, I can always count on the sincerity of her effort. If she fails, its an honest failure, its the good and the bad that come with a singular pursuit of the muse. Apparently she’s planning to record a new album next year, I’m very interested to see what she does next!

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    1. When you put heat and soul into something, it’s only natural that you would seek support and validation, so I think your hypothesis is probably correct. Artists are human beings, too, and no matter how much they believe in their work, they wouldn’t put it on public display if they weren’t hoping to reach people. In PJ’s case, I think Stories from the City is her attempt to find common ground with the public, a much healthier approach than the one Ian Anderson took after the critics blasted A Passion Play, when he allowed the hurt to turn into a bitterness that contaminated some of his work immediately afterwards. The dynamic between artist and audience is a tricky one, but I think PJ manages it better than anyone. I’ve never heard anything by her that even approaches a sellout.

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  3. This is a great review ARC. You took a long time over it I guess, and it pays a musician of this stature due respect. I think Polly Harvey is one of THE significant artists from any period of recorded music. I get butterflies of anticipation when I buy her new albums. I never know how I’m going to react, except that it will take concentrated listening at least 3 times before it clicks.
    I bought Dry when it came out. Strong meat, and it is definitely an album made by a young person out to make an impression, but on the rare occasions I play it now I’m still excited by chunks of it. In any theoretical PJ Harvey anthology, “Sheela-Na-Gig” would surely have to be the opening punch in the guts.
    I’ve bought every album she’s released since then, and my own favourites are not necessarily hers. I have a theory that the artist is an unreliable guide to their own work. If they care about the work, they will be unsatisfied because they just KNOW they could have done better. They will, conversely, passionately defend a work like it’s their child if they think it’s been treated unfairly. John Lennon is a perfect example of an artist who could be dismissive of his most loved songs and albums. (I’m going to bring him up again).
    I’ve settled on 3 PJ Harvey albums which I think should be sent into space as exemplars of intelligent, highly emotional and beautifully realised holistic works – To Bring You My Love, Stories from the City, and Let England Shake. Most of her other “mature” work is oh-so-close to these stunning art pieces. I know that Harvey has been slightly dismissive of SFTC, and hasn’t really had a lot to say about TBYML. All I can say is that they move me on every level.
    My own pick of her highest achievement so far is LES. I was listening to a radio doco about the English pastoral composers who served in the so-called “Great War” – Vaughn Williams, Butterworth, Holst, Bliss, and others, and their French contemporary Ravel. As with almost everything connected to that terrible war, the stories were just too grim to bear for anyone with an ounce of emotional intelligence, and I found myself trying to continue pulling weeds in the garden, weeping away, as one terribly moving letter home after another was read into my earphones. Now when pop musicians try to create a thematic work (as in an album) dealing with such profoundly important topics as war and loss, you’ll get skinny-arsed nincompoops fondly imagining that the experiences of a rock’n’roll band “on the road” (maaaan) have some relationship to those of a 19 year-old boy sobbing in terror before dying in a criminally futile bayonet charge across – literally – 20 metres – fuck! 20 metres! – of no-man’s land. Very few manage to do it without insulting the memory of the who died before they had a chance to live. One of the few is PJ Harvey.
    I think that with LES, Harvey has created a masterpiece of both remembrance to those who suffered, and a strong, abstract (non-didactic) editorial on just what that war actually did TO people, along with every other war into which her country, your country, and mine have eagerly rushed almost without a minute of peace for over a hundred years. She channels Yoko Ono (I know, I know, but Yoko’s an influence on a lot of left field musicians) on several tracks; Kate Bush, notably on “Written On the Forehead”; 1970s progressive rock on “All and Everyone”, her own country’s folk heritage, particularly on “On Battleship Hill”: such a rich, complex work. Her lyrics are beautifully spare, apt, to-the point; she writes in the first person and somehow manages to sing emotional truths about experiences she hasn’t lived herself.
    I love the high register she sings in on her recent albums (not an original observation of mine; several reviews have noted this change).
    I do miss her electric guitar playing though. She’s not Yngwie Malmsteen (thank fuck!) but she’s an strong, emotional player; she plays from her gut, her heart, her crotch. She plays electric guitar like the trapped, despairing Lennon of John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band, The White Album, Let It Be and Abbey Road. Her playing sings of that pain which can’t always be articulated through speech; it might be more easily wrenched from a musical instrument or howled wordlessly into a microphone.
    That reminds me. I must write to disagree with you one day about Janis Joplin.
    Cheers, Dave.

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    1. Excellent mini-review of LES! I did put a lot of work and thought into the Is This Desire? review, as PJ’s work is so multi-layered and profound. There aren’t too many musicians who reach “profound,” but her ability to empathize with human beings and translate that empathy into art is exceptional and quite unique. When you work your way through the cacophony of the early 90’s, it’s obvious that she was one of the few who had that certain something that made her stand out from the rest. I find it difficult to review an artist who is still creating art; we don’t have the whole context yet, and PJ is such an explorer! I do know that if she retired tomorrow, she would leave a legacy that will last for centuries.

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