Tag Archives: PJ Harvey

Pixies – Surfer Rosa – Classic Music Review

Nice tits.

What’s striking about those tits is that they look perfectly natural. Having recently studied the history of modern porn from the first issue of Playboy to the present, I have concluded that tits have gone through three phases of development:

  • The Natural Phase: Tits as determined by genes inherited from mom, dad or the mailman
  • The Inflated Phase: Tits rounded out and inflated due to the extra shots of estrogen and progesterone in birth control pills
  • The Bimbo Phase: Large and “perfectly” shaped tits fashioned by saline or silicone implants

I developed this taxonomy of tits after spending an afternoon with my hardcore lesbian cousin and her multi-gigabyte collection of adult female porn. Her collection is carefully curated and organized, so I asked her to organize her pics by date of publication so we could view changes in tit development over time. The chronology clearly shows that the natural tits of Betty Page and Marilyn Monroe started to give way to inflated tits in 1966, and other than the occasional sop to small-tit connoisseurs, hormone-enhanced tits dominated the pictorials from that point on. Fake tits entered the picture in the ’80s, but consistent “perfection” would elude plastic surgeons until the 21st century. It’s obvious when you look at some pornstars from the ’90s that their saline bags have gravitated towards the nipple, resulting in a look my cousin defined as “tit sausage (nichons de saucisse).” Recent porn is dominated by the bimbo look, marked by perfectly round, gigantic tits accompanied by fat-augmented lips that make women look more like circus clowns than sex kittens.

But I digress.

We agreed that natural and hormone-enhanced tits were the most pleasing to the eye, and that breast augmentation/reconstruction should be reserved for the unfortunate women who have had to undergo mastectomies. I don’t think our joint opinion will have any impact on the tit-building industry because modern cultures have made tits a commodity, and “bigger is better” dominates the field just like extra-large cokes and super-sized fries. The Mayo Clinic suggests that breast augmentation “might help you improve your self-confidence,” and when a respected institution like The Mayo Clinic argues that a purely cultural bias is a valid reason for a medical procedure, it should tell you that tits are an important revenue stream in the health care field.

The “self-confidence” selling point arises from two sources. It’s validating when a woman walks into a night club and causes heads to turn—and nothing draws a man’s attention as effectively as a respectable rack. But unbeknownst to most men, women pay just as much attention to racks as men do—and I’m not just talking about gay women. Women are always checking out each other to see how they “stack up” in comparison. Somehow, shelling out serious bucks to own a better rack than your girlfriend builds “self-confidence.” Natural tits have become passé in our totally fucked-up world.

Yes, but what the fuck does all this tit play have to do with Pixies?

Glad you asked! In preparation for this review, I listened to three commercially successful records from the ’80s:

  • Songs from the Big Chair by Tears for Fears
  • The Stone Roses
  • So by Peter Gabriel

All these albums (and many more ’80s recordings) are marked by the sound of drums enhanced through gated reverb to give the music a more cinematic wide-field sound. It is one of the distinguishing features of ’80s music (along with cheesy-sounding synthesizers). Those horrid production values led me to define the ’80s as a decade largely marked by fake sound and fury, signifying nothing.

Huh. U2’s “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For” just popped into my head. I wonder why.

Anyway, when the Pixies opened their first full-length studio album with David Lovering and the sound of natural drums, it represented am emphatic rejection of the sleek and slick sounds of ’80’s music. Like the Punk Revolution, Pixies music represented a return to the rough-and-rowdy, bursting-with-energy essence of rock ‘n’ roll. Combined with Steve Albini’s raw production and the trademark soft-LOUD dynamics, the Pixies’ approach to music would have an enormous influence on a diverse group of musicians who would dominate the scene in the ’90s—Kurt Cobain, Billy Corgan, PJ Harvey, Radiohead, etc.

It should be noted that none of the four artists mentioned in the previous paragraph came close to duplicating the absurdist humor in Pixies songs (Cobain came the closest). At first listen, Black Francis’ songwriting style seems like undisciplined stream-of-consciousness, but it’s really more like the output of an accomplished improv actor: the words that come out of his head feel spontaneous but are nearly always tied to a palpable theme. He seems to start with a germ of an idea—a word, a location, an experience—and takes it wherever it leads him without allowing the censor to block the idea’s natural growth.

Opening with that thrilling sound of natural percussion, “Bone Machine” proceeds to give each member a turn in the spotlight, with Kim Deal hot on Lovering’s heels with a memorable bass run reflecting her preference for old strings that strips unwanted treble and brightness from the bottom. Joey Santiago enters with a decidedly nasty guitar riff over which we hear Black Francis shouting, “This is a song for Carol.” The structure and delivery of the song defy convention: the verses are narrated; the bridge features a melody that tracks the bass pattern as Francis and Kim sing in unison; what passes for a chorus is delivered in loose harmony and stop time. “It’s a song about fucking”, Kim Deal said in the documentary Pixies – On the Road, standing up to demonstrate the movement of a woman’s pelvis during a fuck (the bone machine is the “thing” that makes the pelvis go). Carol apparently has a bone machine working on overdrive and all she has to show for it is a case of herpes:

You’re into Japanese fast food
And I drop you off with your Japanese lover
And you’re going to the beach all day
You’re so pretty when you’re unfaithful to me
You so pretty when you’re unfaithful to me

You’re looking like
You’ve got some sun
Your blistered lips
Have got a kiss
They taste a bit like everyone

Uh-oh, uh-oh, uh-oh, uh-oh
Your bone’s got a little machine

The second verse represents a leap through memory association, harkening back to an incident involving a different bone machine, one belonging to a pedophile pastor:

I was talking to preachy-preach about kissy-kiss
He bought me a soda
He bought me a soda
He bought me a soda and he tried to molest me in the parking lot
Yep, yep yep yep

The concept of a “bone machine” highlights the disconnection between the sexual organs and the part of the brain that exercises judgment. Carol fucks like a rabbit, the narrator gets turned on by her unfaithfulness, the pastor can’t control his repressed libido. In the last verse, the cause of attraction is brown skin that we assume differs from the narrator’s, hinting at the age-old truth that forbidden fruit amplifies attraction because it is forbidden. Attraction is a complex, often mysterious dynamic, but if there’s a takeaway here, it’s something like “know who you’re fucking and why you’re fucking, or . . . uh-oh.”

Pixies are by definition mischievous, and Francis often likes to play the role of a loser, allowing the character to present their loser behavior with a minimum of judgment. Being true to the character makes the point far more effectively than giving us a sermon on the evils of whatever weird shit the loser comes up with. The character in “Break My Body” is an extreme self-destructive type, an honest-to-goodness masochist who repeatedly dares life to pile on the pain. This creature breaks down doors, (probably) fucks mom, and leaps from building to building just for the hell of it. The most controversial line is typically rendered as “I’m a belly dancer/I’ll shake forever and I’ll never care,” but what I hear (and validated by user Blue Grenade on Genius Lyrics) is “I’m a belly dancer/I’ll shake for Arabs and I’ll never care.” The latter makes more sense, especially if you avoid the mistake of viewing it through a post 9/11 lens (and yes, there are male belly dancers). My take is that the song is about how people revel in their own victimization, but as blog critic Gordon Hauptfleisch concluded, what really matters is “It has a good beat and you can run a record store to it.” Two minutes of percussion-driven overdrive, distorted guitar pushing the edges of dissonance, unrestrained vocals from Francis and Kim Deal . . . then the sudden switch to muffled guitar, the drums now front and center to support the vocal duet, then—drop-dead silence. While they certainly took an unusual build path to get there, that closing passage raises the tension to the nth degree like that moment in the horror flick when the idiot is about to open the door that no one in their right mind would open and then . . . tune in next week for the thrilling finale! Arrgh! Whether “Break My Body” is the prototypical Pixies song (as Mr. Hauptfleisch argued) is good fodder for a barroom debate, but I’ll say this: I can’t imagine any other band on the planet coming up with a song quite like it.

The Pixies were given ten days to record and wrap up the album, but they got down to business and pretty much finished Surfer Rosa in a week. That left them lots of time to mess around with “experimental stuff basically to kill time.” As true in music as it is in science, some experiments work and some don’t. For “Something Against You,” Albini ran Black Francis’ vocal through a guitar amp to achieve a “totally ragged, vicious texture.” I suppose some sort of backhanded congratulations are in order, for the vocal is certainly ragged, but a.) it’s impossible to make out the words because b.) the mix doesn’t separate the vocal enough from the already ragged background featuring a combination of detuned rhythm guitar and high-distortion lead/rhythm. The lyrics consist of one line repeated several times and a closing shot: “I’ve got something against you/Oh yeah, I am one happy prick,” a wonderfully economic statement on the human tendency to take pleasure from resentment. I just think it would have been better if Francis had shaped it into a haiku and delivered the vocal from some misty mountain top.

“Broken Face” is one of the more punk-oriented pieces on the album, burning hot, hard and fast as it rips through its tale of incest in about a minute-and-a-half. The narrator seems to be the defective result of a multi-generational orgy within the family (“There was this boy who had two children with his sisters/They were his daughters/They were his favorite lovers), and at first I thought Black Francis’ imitation of the disabled kid’s speech mannerisms was rather cruel. It took me a while to shift blame to the senseless idiots who sired the kid, and though I’m still not entirely comfortable with the piece, I love the ass-kicking noise of it all.

Kurt Cobain loved Pixies music and fully acknowledged their influence, but his admiration did not prevent him from lodging a complaint with management: “I wish Kim was allowed to write more songs for the Pixies because ‘Gigantic’ is the best Pixies song and Kim wrote it.” Well, no . . . not quite. Here’s the real story as related by Kim Deal’s then-husband John Murphy in Fool the World: The Oral History of a Band Called Pixies:

MURPHY: Charles [“Black Francis”] came up with the riff, but he wasn’t really sure what the lyrics were going to be, so he goes, “Eh, well, Kim, why don’t you take a shot at it? The only thing I know is that I want to call it ‘Gigantic’,” and she says, “Fine.” So she comes home with it and she’s playing it on the guitar and I said, “Gigantic, okay, maybe it’s about a big mall.” She goes, “Okay, let’s try that for a while,” and I’m like, “The mall, the mall, let’s have a ball.” So I wrote that. It changed to “Hey, Paul”, because it had to rhyme. And then, a couple of days later she had fixated on this Sissy Spacek movie Crimes of the Heart about this farmworker, I think he’s a black guy, and Sissy Spacek and this farmworker get together – so that’s what it’s about. An illicit love affair.

While Kurt didn’t have the whole backstory, I do agree with his sentiments, but I would have lodged a slightly different complaint—something like, “Hey, guys, are you trying to force Kim out of the band or what?” As things turned out, Kim’s presence on Pixies albums would never come close to her near omnipresence on Surfer Rosa, where she sang lead, harmony or unison on a majority of tracks. She would only get one half-credit for songwriting on Doolittle (“Silver”) and zero on the last two Pixies efforts. When the guys rejected her original compositions as “not Pixies songs,” she formed The Breeders, in turn reducing her commitment to Pixies, in turn leading to a lot of bad juju, yada, yada, yada.

There are different mixes of “Gigantic” (the Albini version on the album, the Gil Norton version on the single), so feel free to choose one that suits your tastes. For me, the mix doesn’t matter all that much, as what draws my attention and twiddles my diddle is Kim’s vocal. There’s a wickedness in her voice as she anticipates that “hunk of love” drilling into her sweet spot (“Hey Paul, hey Paul, hey Paul, let’s have a ball”); her voice shifts to unbridled ecstasy as he delivers the goods:

Gigantic, gigantic, gigantic
A big, big love

Though I think large dongs are highly overrated and I can’t stand chick flicks, “Gigantic” never fails to thrill me.

The flip side of the “Gigantic” single was “River Euphrates,” also remixed by Norton. While the lyrics are clearer and the sound cleaner on the single, I have a strong preference for the album version for two reasons: one, Joey Santiago’s introduction is deliciously dissonant on the album, and somewhat “straightened out” on the single; and two, the “ride, ride, ride” vocals on the album sound sweeter and more natural. You’ll notice that Kim has to catch her breath a couple of times within the phrase, something that technically qualifies as poor breath control but is oh-so human (go ahead and try to duplicate the vocal and home to appreciate its difficulty). I just love how Black Francis’ mind works: “Oh, I’m out of gas in the middle of the Gaza strip, but let’s just put that jack to work, grab a couple of tires and float down the Euphrates!” No obstacle is insurmountable for Charles Michael Kitteridge Thompson IV!

“Where Is My Mind?” builds on a question you commonly pose to yourself when you forget to . . . don’t recognize . . . fuck things up . . . have a brain fart. “Okay,” you say, “But what’s the song about?” Black Francis explained exactly how I would have explained it, so rather than plagiarize, I shall cite this quotation I found on Shmoop:

I can’t explain it to you; I just think the song is likable. Even though Kim barely sings on it, there’s something about her singing that little haunting two-note riff. The same thing with Joey, he’s got a little two-note thing going on too. It’s so simple, and then there’s me in the middle singing the wacky cute little lyrics. So it’s kind of a quintessential Pixie song. It sort of displays everyone’s personalities. The song has something very likable about it and I’m not sure what it is.

Certain songs just make you feel good. You can identify the components that contribute to the “feel good” vibe of “Where Is My Mind?” (major key, minor chords used to strengthen melodic flow before returning to an uplifting major chord to finish the phrase, sufficient variation without going overboard, nice swaying beat, the stick-in-your-head two-note patterns described above, the relaxed execution), but getting the right ingredients doesn’t always result in a dish that wows the dinner party. According to standard pop formulae, “Where Is My Mind?” shouldn’t make you feel good because the lyrical lines are imbalanced and there isn’t a single rhyme in the mix. I think the key here is in the magic of the four different musical personalities, each making a distinctive contribution to a satisfying whole. At their best, Pixies are just fucking fun to listen to.

We now return to the catalog of life’s losers, and the ultimate loser in any society usually winds up in prison sooner or later unless they’re white and have enough money to float bail and afford a crack legal team. We don’t know what he’s done to earn the time, but we find the loser in “Cactus” sitting on the cement floor of his not-so-cozy bungalow bemoaning separation from his squeeze. The strong, steady thumping beat and dark minor-key guitar distortion form a background that reflects a feverish obsession, and in a voice that sounds like the whimper of a man breaking down from the experience of enforced isolation, Black Francis informs us that our anti-hero’s obsession has to do with a specific piece of apparel:

Sitting here wishing on a cement floor
Just wishing that I had just something you wore
I’d put it on when I go lonely
Will you take off your dress and send it to me?

The italics (mine) serve to identify Kim’s flashes of vocal harmony that appear in the closing words to each verse, one of those little touches in a song that make all the difference in the world (enter “Count Basie Theory” in the site search box for more information). The expressed desire to wear her dress (rather than stuff it under his pillow for a comforting beddie-bye scent) gives me the impression that the man may have been tagged to serve as the female partner in one of those prison shower romances, and Kim’s spot vocal tacked onto the narration reinforces that impression. It’s obvious that the guy is desperately trying to hold onto his heterosexuality (“I miss your kissin’ and I miss your head”) but the paranoia induced by isolation consistently leads him to worst-case-scenario thinking (“And a letter in your writing doesn’t mean you’re not dead”). The last request to his long-lost love can be interpreted as the ravings of a sicko, a plea for proof that she is still among the living or the cry of an overwrought man with an unfathomable desire to experience intimacy at the cellular level:

Bloody your hands on a cactus tree
Wipe it on your dress and send it to me

While “Cactus” lacks a proper chorus, the verses are the most conventionally-structured poetry on Surfer Rosa, with an AABB rhyme scheme. While I think that sop to tradition makes the song more accessible, our anti-hero is unlikely to evoke much sympathy from lock-’em-up Americans. Here’s a tip for those of you who have an empathy deficit: on your next vacation, head to the great city of Philadelphia, skip the Independence Hall hoo-hah and drop by the Eastern State Penitentiary. Look long and hard at the prison cells, and try to remind yourself of Phil Ochs’ admonition: “There but for fortune go you or I.”

We move on to the much lighter “Tony’s Theme,” marked by Kim Deal’s loaded-with-naive-high-schoolish-enthusiasm vocal intro and don’t-fuck-with-me lead guitar from Joey Santiago. Tony is the master of bicycling, racing and popping wheelies; the card in his spokes identifies Tony as a future wannabe Harley owner. Beneath the daredevil façade, he’s a good boy who always remembers to mow the lawn after school, a tidbit that seriously diminishes his hero status. It’s followed by the title track that is not a title track but does contain the only reference to Surfer Rosa: the Spanish-language bash, “Oh My Golly.” Opening with David Lovering’s emphatic attack on the toms (natural, of course), the song forms a celebration of a whirlwind Caribbean romance where the narrator and Surfer Rosa make out and get drunk (besando, chichando) under the Caribbean moon. The heart-thumping nature of the erotic experience is accentuated by high speed and truncated measures that intensify the out-of-control passion incited by Surfer Rosa (see tit pic above).

“Vamos” is a different take of a song that appeared on Come On Pilgrim, featuring an opening verse in Spanish where the narrator is considering the option of moving in with his sister in New Jersey, who has told him about the great life in the upscale burbs (very rich, very cool)—the East Coast preppy version of the American Dream:

We’ll keep well-bred
We’ll stay well-fed
We’ll have our sons
They will be all well hung

They’ll come and play
Their friends will say
“Your daddy’s rich
Your mamma’s a pretty thing”

The lines can also be interpreted through the lens of incest, but I think it’s equally plausible to interpret the “in-breeding” hinted at here as something involving social class and not brother and sister (old money and the trophy wife). That interpretation is reinforced by the man’s classic fascination with the hot Spanish maid, the upper-class fantasy extraordinaire. The sister’s expressed frustration that “I keep getting friends/Looking like lesbians” tells us that her enclave may be too preppy for their tastes and that they might have more luck in the less rigid but still superficial upper-class life in California. Lots of drive, noise and exuberance in this piece, with Joey Santiago’s random guitar attacks standing out.

“I’m Amazed” begins with Kim Deal telling her mates a real-life story about how a coach with a thing for field hockey players mysteriously disappeared from campus. That kind of story would draw a lot more publicity today, and somewhere in the coverage, someone who knew the pervert would shake their head and say, “I’m amazed.” Oh, bullshit. You knew something was going on and chose to ignore it. The same is true of the three incidents mentioned in the song proper—all create some form of “amazement,” but none are really all that amazing except to those who have their heads up their asses. The fascinating aspect of the music comes from the Francis-Deal vocal duet that falls somewhere between call-and-response and a half-hearted attempt at a round—chaotic and very effective.

Surfer Rosa closes hot with the blues-tinged raucousness of “Brick Is Red.” The duet that stands out here is the interplay between Santiago and Lovering in the extended intro where both men are ripping and bashing like there’s no tomorrow. The vocal duet featuring Francis and Deal ain’t half bad either, with Kim randomizing her harmonic splashes to arbitrarily highlight words and phrases that may or may not have significant meaning. Though the poetry may not make “sense,” the image of eyes turning the color of diamond—“just the color,” “the frayed color of ice”—forms a picture that is both alluring and repulsive.

What struck me most when re-engaging with Surfer Rosa is how fresh it sounds thirty-two years after its release. The feeling of spontaneity, the direct and indirect humor, the sheer excitement of the musicians as they create a novel approach to rock music—all these come through soft, LOUD and clear. It’s one of those rare albums that expand the listener’s perspective without crossing the line into pretension, and even with its occasional forays into the so-called dark aspects of the human personality, Surfer Rosa leaves you with the feeling that you’ve just had one helluva good time.

PJ Harvey – Stories from the City Stories from the Sea – Classic Music Review

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.

Shut up.

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 . . .

SHUT UP!

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

Baby, baby
Ain’t it true
I’m immortal
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
Beautiful people
Beautiful girls
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
Good fortune
And I fantasize
Of our leaving
Like some modern-day
Gypsy landslide
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
Unbelievable
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.”

Thom Yorke’s earlier background vocals were just a warmup for the full meal deal, the vocal “duet” with PJ on “The Mess We’re In.” I place “duet” in quotation marks because the word implies a joining of voices in harmony, and the two characters in “The Mess We’re In” rarely harmonize, “talk” over each other and sometimes even talk to themselves. As the city sun sets on their affair, we learn that he’s into lovemaking as portrayed in movies and she experiences a tingle in her twat when she feels his sweat on her skin (eliciting a gorgeous moan that is the highlight of the song for me). Their voices do contrast nicely with each other, with Thom taking the high notes while PJ staying low in a subtle dig at gender stereotypes . . . but the pairing is a bit jarring, as noted by Lauren O’Neal on Rumpus

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’m also more than slightly creeped out when I hear Thom refer to his partner in the affair as “baby.” The use of that term in a Radiohead song is unthinkable. Despite all my quibbles, I like the song—or more accurately, I’m fascinated by it.

Now that Thom’s gone off to tie up loose ends on Kid A, PJ returns to center stage with “You Said Something,” a piece with a folk-rock flavor presented in waltz time. The song is arranged well, and the combo of multi-instrumentalists (PJ, Mick Harvey and Rob Ellis) provide their typically professional, understated support. Sadly, the song is rather like a joke without a punchline, as PJ tells her unseen friend on two different occasions “Then you said something/I’ve never forgotten,” and then forgets to let us in on the secret. In the last line she describes her friend’s comment as “really important,” but if it was so fucking important, why not share it with your listeners? I find the experience of “You Said Something” intensely aggravating, in large part because it’s a fundamentally solid song that ends with a pfffft.

At this point, PJ deviates from the script and gives us back-to-back rough-and-nasty. “Kamikaze” is allegedly another love-gone-bad song, but the metaphors are both hyperbolic and tenuous, making it quite a challenge to finally figure out PJ is desperately attempting to rid herself of a self-destructive asshole who wants to take her down with him. The music increases in intensity through the first and second verses, reaching a peak in the chorus, where PJ goes high soprano and Rob Ellis launches an extended assault on the drum kit that never lets up until the finish. It’s a nice burst of energy after a relatively low-key album, and a solid warm-up for the far more direct and to-the-point “This Is Love.”

If you’ve read my bio on the home page, you’ll know that life priority #1 is sex. I utterly reject the label of nymphomaniac, defined by Merriam-Webster as “one affected by nymphomania : a female who has an excessive desire for sexual activity.” Q: Who decides what is “excessive?” A: Men! The word is primarily used in the context of slut-shaming, and the implication of the term is that a woman must learn to control her sexual urges while men can fuck with reckless abandon. Women who “sleep around” are whores; men who sleep around are guys just being guys. The male fear of “excessive” female desire has been present in nearly all human cultures from time immemorial, manifesting itself in customs as ludicrous as the expectation that women remain virgins until they marry and as horrific as female genital mutilation, a still-active ritual that has resulted in the disfiguration of more than 200 million girls living today.
When I say I’m proud to be a slut, it doesn’t mean I’ll fuck anyone for any reason. It means I’m not afraid to express my sexual desire and see no earthly reason to hide that desire. The word “nymphomaniac” implies a woman who is out of control, and I am always conscious and intentional about sex, from the earliest communication of desire to the expression of eroticism in the heat of the moment. To me, sexual honesty on the part of a woman is a blessed act of liberation. So, when I hear PJ Harvey sing the opening lines of “This Is Love” without the slightest hint of shame or embarrassment, I feel a lot more than satisfaction—I feel validation.

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)

As far as I’m concerned, the “it’s not love, it’s lust” crowd can all go fuck themselves! That said, we live in a rather judgmental, narrow-minded world, so some temperance is called for:

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

PJ is using the phrase “dirty little secret” in the way we LGBTQ people have transformed the epithet “queer” into a positive expression of identity. We have to protect our love from the cruel judgment of various religious types and other judgmental assholes, but we don’t think anything we do is dirty—it’s just love, love, love.

PJ’s vocal reflects this rejection of convention in a tone combining more than a hint of sacred lust and a stance of “what the fuck, people?” that you hear in many early rock songs that incorporate social criticism, from “Summertime Blues” to “Get Off My Cloud.” This style of rock is a particular sweet spot for PJ, having grown up (like me!) with parents who played 60’s rock and classic blues all day and all of the night. My kind of woman and my kind of song!

“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”:

But now
We float
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!

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