In an interview with Mojo magazine some years after Stories from the City, Stories from the Sea was released, PJ Harvey said, “I felt like I got lost around that record. I wanted to try writing lots of perfect pop songs. It’s great to set oneself projects, but they also have to ring true to your heart and soul. Pop music isn’t where my heart is at.”
Polly—may I call you Polly? Great. Polly, let me give you some friendly advice.
Artists are terribly neurotic people, always second-guessing themselves, forever offering alternative explanations and unnecessary excuses for past works that don’t fit the new self-narrative they’re trying to spin to the media. Ray Davies disowned his theatrical works, Ian Anderson called A Passion Play “one-dimensional,” and John Lennon tried to rewrite history dozens of times when he wanted to discount past offerings that failed to serve his desire to project himself as an artiste. Sometimes the change of heart is in reaction to criticism (Davies and Anderson), but more often it’s an artist on a personal growth trajectory who can’t bear to think about the earlier, allegedly inferior version of themselves that bears no resemblance to the image they wish to promulgate in the present.
And hey, Polly, when promoting Stories from the City, Stories from the Sea, you told Q Magazine, “I wanted everything to sound as beautiful as possible. Having experimented with some dreadful sounds on Is This Desire and To Bring You My Love—where I was really looking for dark, unsettling, nauseous-making sounds—Stories From The City . . . was the reaction. I thought, No, I want absolute beauty. I want this album to sing and fly and be full of reverb and lush layers of melody. I want it to be my beautiful, sumptuous, lovely piece of work.”
Mission accomplished. So—you went through a phase that was a natural, balancing response to a previous phase. The result of that balancing act was a beautiful album. Shut up.
And as you also noted in that interview, the album is “pop according to PJ Harvey, which is probably as un-pop as you can get according to most people’s standards.” Ahem. Art is not limited to those genres given the seal of approval by the cognoscenti, and as I have noted many times before, simply because a work is popular doesn’t mean it isn’t art. Willie Shakespeare was pretty popular in his day, as were Dickens, Liszt, Louis Armstrong, Frank Sinatra and the aforementioned Mr. Lennon. As for the label, “pop music,” the term is quite elastic and has morphed considerably over time. For the past twenty years, “pop” has meant “shitty repetitive music produced by entertainers who couldn’t survive without autotune.” Stories from the City, Stories from the Sea does not come close to fitting the definition of pop in vogue at the time of the album’s release, so . . .
Stories from the City, Stories from the Sea does indeed feature many moments of beauty, and vocally, PJ never sounded better. There’s also plenty of power in many of the tracks, but instead of the raw power highlighted on her first three albums, we hear a more disciplined and intentional use of power that makes for some terribly exciting moments. Consisting of songs she wrote during the period she lived in New York and others she wrote back home in Dorset, the material on the album ranges from edgy to ethereal, from spacious to claustrophobic, from fearful to loving. It seems that PJ was far more worried about the “pop” label than anyone else, as contemporary buyers of pop paid little attention to the three singles released from the album, none of which came close to cracking the top 30. No, Stories from the City, Stories from the Sea is still 100% certifiable PJ Harvey: curious, complex and endlessly compelling. The darkness that characterized her music prior to Stories isn’t replaced by sunshine and lollipops but presented in a more nuanced and detached manner, as if Polly Jean had embraced the universal truth of yin and yang instead of spending all her time yinning.
Yay! I made a new verb!
While inventing language on the fly is about as creative as I ever get (outside of the bedroom, of course), for PJ Harvey, talent is both a gift and an obsession. The obsessive aspect of her creative side makes it natural for her to portray obsessive characters, whether it’s the broad trying to guilt Billy into accepting his paternal responsibilities or the paranoid nutcase in “Big Exit” who convinces herself that she could be safe from the bad, bad world if only she had access to a gun. This is a woman seriously trapped in the fight-flight loop, driven by her irrational response to fears both real and imagined:
Look out ahead
I see danger come
I want a pistol
I want a gun
I’m scared baby
I wanna run
This world’s crazy
Give me the gun
Ain’t it true
When I’m with you
But I want a pistol
In my hand
I wanna go to
A different land
As the narrator later complains about “too many cops/too many guns,” we can safely assume that this is one of the songs where PJ reflected on her experience in the USA, a place where irrational fear combines with illogic to create a country where guns are cherished more than children. PJ’s vocal is sufficiently over-the-top to capture the woman’s deep-seeded anxiety and the short-circuited left side of her brain, but what I find most impressive about this characterization is that the woman uses a seductive tone to try to get her lover to hand over the .38. Sex and violence have always been integrated in American culture and celebrated simultaneously in American art—think Bonnie and Clyde, Fatal Attraction—the list is endless. PJ didn’t stay all that long in the States (less than a year as a resident), but she still managed to perceive some of the bizarre aspects of the American psyche that befuddle most of the other inhabitants of the planet.
The music is equally fascinating, opening with a simple G-F-G-F guitar riff in stereo soon backed by a hard-strummed guitar open-tuned to G with no third (resulting in a G5-G7 pattern, NOT the Gm incorrectly cited on several chord sites). Getting rid of the third (here the B note) creates a stronger drone effect, an insistent sound that mirrors the character’s equally insistent fixation on pistol as problem solver. The sense of alarm in the first verse is intensified because the only sounds are that guitar ensemble, a relatively faint snare and PJ’s voice. When the bass comes in on the first-go-round of the chorus—which also involves a key change to Dm—I get the chills I often get from those little moments of simple brilliance that make music such a delightful experience. As the song proceeds, the band throws in other sounds (including a harpsichord, believe it or not) until the stop-time bridge gives us another key change (Gm) and the superficial reflections of a woman completely incapacitated by life’s contradictions, by the simultaneous existence of yin and yang:
Sometimes it rains so hard
And I feel the hurt
In my heart
Feels like the end of the world
I see the children
Sharp as knives
I see the children
Dead and alive
I just feel like
It’s the end of the world
PJ leaves the woman in psychic paralysis, permanently trapped in the inability to accept reality as multi-dimensional. The “big exit” of the title is also multi-dimensional: it has echoes of the “big sleep” from film noir, the woman’s desire to escape the world’s contradictions and her latent urge to kill. “Big Exit” is a rich musical and lyrical experience, a phrase you rarely hear applied to “pop songs.”
The practice of withholding resolution to the root chord is repeated in the exuberant “Good Fortune,” where PJ begins the verses on the noncommittal combination of Am9/G6 before settling on C major to wrap up the sequence (don’t bother with the chords cited on Wikipedia, because they’re wrong, too). These extended suspensions are remarkably effective in raising the anticipation of resolution, so when PJ reluctantly lands on the root, the experience is infinitely more satisfying than say the classic trope of seventh-chord-to-root that you’ll find in a billion blues and rock songs. PJ has more comfort with ambiguity than most musicians, and the reluctance to find resolution is both an acceptance of life’s unpredictability and a deep desire to milk every experience for all that it’s worth.
This chosen restlessness also manifests itself in “Good Fortune” through references to the gypsy experience, a longing for a life on the move where routines and garden-variety expectations are replaced by improvising in the here and now. The image of the gypsy was not chosen at random; it was chosen because gypsies are a stigmatized group treated like outlaws in part for refusing to abandon their peripatetic ways for metro-boulot-dodo. Unlike the paralyzed narrator in “Bad Exit,” PJ comes down hard on the side of the flight response and its illicit connotations:
So I take my
And I fantasize
Of our leaving
Like some modern-day
Like some modern-day
Bonnie and Clyde
On the run again (On the run again)
Hopefully the modern-day Bonnie and Clyde left the guns on the rack.
The desire to leave it all behind also defies our expectations of what “good fortune” looks like. For most people in the western world, good fortune is something that brings fame or enough money to do whatever the fuck we want. PJ diminishes the value of both fame and fortune earlier in the song by reducing those aspects of good fortune to “been there, done that.”
Things I once thought
In my life
Have all taken place
Fortunately for the rest of us, PJ hasn’t yet formed her own band of gypsies, and I doubt that she’ll do that until she’s completely exhausted the artistic need for self-expression. Given her stated desire to produce albums that sound completely different from preceding efforts, I think she’s found a way to manifest her gypsy spirit through her music, and I am so good with that.
The truth is you can escape social norms without going anywhere, if you’re fortunate enough to find and nurture a genuine, loving relationship where all parties dedicate themselves to the full realization of self and other. This is the subject matter of “A Place Called Home,” a song that supports the notion of mitigating the dehumanizing effects of society through the open arms of a supportive relationship. As a person who has adopted what society terms an alternative lifestyle, I relate deeply to this song, and it’s the only PJ Harvey song I’ve thoroughly learned and performed during the annual family get-togethers, with my mother or partner joining me on the layered call-and-response vocals in the chorus.
It’s not a difficult song to learn, as the guitar chords are pretty standard fare designed to give the singer lots of room to maneuver. That maneuverability is most obvious in the chorus where PJ delivers the lead vocals within normal range while raising her voice an octave to deliver the tender, encouraging responses (my love, come on). Where the flexibility of a steady baseline really pays off is in the second verse, where PJ varies her phrasing so that the lines “I stumble, I stumble” defy the rhythm, amplifying the emotional impact of separation:
I walk, I wade
Through full lands and lonely
I stumble, I stumble
With you I wait
To be born again
With love comes the day
Just hold on to me
Equally impactful is the chord change on the last verse, where the Am-F pattern is abandoned for the richer complementary pattern of C-G-D2-Am that transforms the static melody into a stirring call for action:
Now is the time
To follow through
To read the signs
Now the message sent
Let’s bring it to its final end
I’ll borrow a phrase from PJ’s statement of intent and declare that “A Place Called Home” is an absolute beauty of a song.
The darker side of the relationship-as-refuge theme is explored in “One Line.” Here love is seen as a survival mechanism, a need more than a desire, a sanctuary from the human propensity for violence, whether on the streets or on the battlefield. While I love the guitar riff and appreciate the message, the structure follows the soft-LOUD Pixieseque style PJ embraced more frequently in her early days, resulting in an arrangement that’s a bit too predictable. Kindred spirit Thom Yorke makes his first appearance on the album, serving up wordless background vocals that enhance the troubled mood.
Thom appears more prominently on “Beautiful Feeling,” an eerie, spare song with mystic overtones that sounds like it belongs on Is This Desire? Each verse describes a life experience that evokes a beautiful feeling: the experience of life itself; the enrichment of culture through immigration in the form of a smiling Mexican boy; and last but never least, the experience of spontaneous attraction to another human being:
And when I watch you move
And I can’t think straight
And I am silenced
And I can’t think straight
And it’s the best thing
It’s the best thing
The best thing
Such a beautiful feeling
Though the song celebrates beautiful experiences, the mood is long-past-midnight: the fingers forming the notes on the fretboard remain firmly planted on the lower strings; Thom Yorke’s dreamy, moaning vocal enhances the general eeriness; and PJ’s sounds like a woman calling up memories as she fades into sleep from a state of sheer exhaustion.
The sleep is delightfully interrupted by an oscillating note that gathers volume and explodes into the full guitar chords that herald the arrival of “The Whores Hustle and the Hustlers Whore.” Although in the current world environment there is a strong urge to interpret the song as one that calls out the thoroughly corrupt and greedy politicians who control the governments in both the U.K. and the United States, the only verse that I can comfortably attribute to the spread of political decay is the second verse:
Speak to me of your inner charm
Of how you’ll keep me safe from harm
I don’t think so, I don’t see
Speak to me of your inner peace
That last line is killer, for if there’s one quality that defines too many career politicians it is the complete lack of conscience and integrity, without which it is impossible to even grasp the concept of “inner peace.” But while most politicians embody the hustler-whore duality, PJ sees the problem as both individual and universal, an affliction that impacts the poor and powerless as thoroughly as the rich and powerful. Whoring and hustling are the norms in The City and on Wall Street, in our search for work and the way we work, and in the way most people manifest sexual interest in another person. In this maddeningly toxic state of affairs, we’re all searching for a “fix” in one form or another:
Speak to me of heroin and speed
Of genocide and suicide, of syphilis and greed
Speak to me the language of love
The language of violence, the language of the heart
This isn’t the first time I’ve asked for money or love
Heaven and earth don’t ever mean enough
Speak to me of heroin and speed
Just give me something I can believe
PJ’s soaring soprano on the fade feels to me like an expression of passionate grieving for a world spinning off its axis, where, in Yeats’ insightful words, “The best lack all conviction, while the worst/Are full of passionate intensity.”
Yorke’s favored approach to sex has been to never mention it because he’s too busy singing about the frantic, inexorable alienation inherent in postmodern society. (I mean, the mongrel cat in “Myxomatosis” manages to fit a brief fling in before getting “edited, fucked up, strangled, beaten up,” “buried in a burning black hole,” “skinned alive,” and so on and so forth. Good for him, I guess.) Meanwhile, Harvey has sung a lot about sex, but usually in the most aggressive, non-erotic ways possible. A brief highlight reel: “You leave me dry,” “You bend over, Casanova,” “I’ve lain with the devil,” “You snake, you crawled between my legs”—plus that whole “statues of women exposing their labia” thing. And that’s just off the top of my head.
I can’t believe that life’s so complex
When I just want to sit here and watch you undress
I can’t believe that life’s so complex
When I just want to sit here and watch you undress
This is love, this is love
That I’m feeling (3)
Even in the summer
Even in the spring
You can never get too much of
A wonderful thing
You’re the only story that I never told
You’re my dirty little secret, wanna keep you so
“Horses in My Dreams” is literally a poetic translation of one of PJ’s dreams. With due apologies to the Jungians in the crowd, not all dream symbols arise from the collective unconscious, and common dream symbols do not necessarily share a universal meaning. In this case, though, the characteristics assigned to the horses in PJ’s dream are pretty close to standard dream interpretations of horses as “symbolic of passion, drive and desire for personal freedom,” as noted on Dreamstop (Freud believed horses represented the sexual drive and power of the dreamer, but then again, Freud would). This pretty much tracks the imagery in the song, where PJ describes horses as “Like waves, like the sea/They pull out of here/They pull, they are free.” Later she claims she has “set myself free again” and that “I have pulled myself clear.” Never having had any contact with horses (they were pretty rare in San Francisco, I guess), I can’t relate to the symbol, but I certainly can relate to the power of dreams to facilitate personal growth and clarity. While PJ’s horses evoke nothing in me, her quest for freedom (artistic, sexual, expressive) definitely moves me. I like the relative quiet of the song, its curious melody and her rather rough, just-got-out-of-bed vocal quality.
We end our experience of PJ Harvey’s definition of beauty with “We Float,” a study in contrasts where the verses provide the yin and the chorus supplies the yang. The dark verses, built around a morose D-E-F pattern on piano, describe a relationship that turned sour when the pursuit of success became a sick addiction to accumulating more, more, more—an itch that can never be scratched.
We wanted to find love
We wanted success
Until nothing was enough
Until my middle name was excess
While her partner vanishes into the bustling anonymity of the city, the narrator is left without the false anchors she used in a vain attempt to ground herself:
I was in need of help
Heading to blackout
‘Till someone told me “run on in honey
Before somebody blows your goddamn brains out”
Trying to make sense of things, all the narrator can come up with is “something broke inside,” and while that may sound vague and weak, she is quite certain that it was the drive for success that ruined the relationship. She now clings to the hope that a solution can be found in the Taoist mantra to “do nothing and nothing will be left undone”:
Take life as it comes
The music here changes to a gentle, flowing rhythm and a chord pattern containing a softening minor seventh as PJ’s voice rises in a moment of delectable beauty. The final verse is the post-mortem, where it becomes clear that their great mistake was to believe freedom comes from having lots of money and refusing to see wealth as the quicksand trap it is:
So will we die of shock?
Die without a trial?
Die on Good Friday?
While holding each other tight
This is kind of about you
This is kind of about me
We just kinda lost our way
We were looking to be free
The song and album end on the extended repetition of the “we float” theme, a triumph of beauty and intimacy over ugliness and greed.
Stories from the City, Stories from the Sea received oodles of accolades and a spot on several all-time best album lists, guaranteeing that PJ would follow it up by going in the opposite direction and “get back to the earthy, rootsy, more dirty side of things” with Uh Uh Her . . . which led her to slam the brakes and turn the car around with White Chalk . . . then carve out a completely different path with Let England Shake . . . which opened the door to socio-political songs and The Hope Six Demolition Project. The directional changes that followed have done nothing to diminish the value of Stories, whether PJ Harvey likes it or not. The experience allowed her to expand her songwriting range and explore the possibilities inherent in melody without damaging her artistic cred one iota.
Polly, it’s a damned good album, so SHUT THE FUCK UP!