Out There

Wet, wet, wet

Is This Desire?
PJ Harvey
Island Records

In the past, Polly Jean Harvey's quiet moments have always stuck out like teardrops in a rainstorm. Dry and Rid of Me were one long howl--the sound a woman makes when she sets out to prove she's tougher, angrier, hornier, hungrier than any man. Her band's follow-up, To Bring You My Love, was even nastier, all tension and no release. Harvey's purpose has remained the same--to separate lust from love, to merge compassion with sex--but her method of delivering the lines has just changed a bit over the years. Where once she snarled and roared, now she sings in a voice that's nearly lovely. Now, she opens her hands instead of clenching her fists. She's direct, hiding nothing in abstract poetry: "Won't you come and be my lover?" she asks while standing in "The Garden." "Let me give you a little kiss."

Is This Desire? does not stray too far from the template, but it's far less arch than her previous releases; imagine her 4-Track Demos covered in honey instead of acid. Harvey's still looking for love in all the wrong places, but her rage and distaste have turned into melancholy and hope. Where once her albums were claustrophobic, now she leaves enough space to fill the sky. "Angeline" begins simply, an acoustic guitar and piano accompanying her whispered vocals--"My first name's Angeline / Prettiest mess you ever seen"--until bass and drums appear, quietly; the song never breaks skin. Where once she might have barked a line like "Dear God, life ain't kind" or "Catherine liked high places," now she breathes it--the effect is far less important than the meaning and implication.

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This is the sort of record Nick Cave might make if he were to trade his Sinatra-on-lithium shtick for a little slinky pop; "Joy" is the most melodramatic thing she's ever recorded, her vocals almost sounding as though filtered through a megaphone. And working with Tricky has turned Harvey into a dance-floor punk outfitted in cocktail dresses. "A Perfect Day Elise" is the closest thing Harvey's ever had to a radio-friendly single; yet it's also one of those songs that dances with damp eyes--the notes keep bending down, like a frown.

Harvey may well sing in the third person, hiding behind characters named Angeline or Catherine or Leah, but it's just her way of getting around singing in the first person. She's no confessional freak, seeming to recoil at the notion that anyone should read too much into her songs. Harvey would rather you put yourself in the moment than merely ride shotgun. She wants you to groove on what she calls "sad love songs," perhaps because it's no fun to suffer alone.

--Robert Wilonsky

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