PJ Harvey sings her thumping thirsty heart out to every woman who was ever deemed (insert name here)’s psycho ex-girlfriend. And to every man who admits weakness in the echoed chambers of despair.
Her songwriting cycles through love’s obscenely honest grieving process: the excruciating buildup to impending distress, the psychotic blame cyclone, revenge fantasies of swinging his or her twist-off head by means of extracted eyeballs and two frayed optic nerves and, finally, the h-h-h-hushed calm of unsatisfied desire wreckage.
“Lick my legs. I’m on fire. Don’t you don’t you wish you never met her!”
Her voice: difficult and addictive. Her stage presence: brittle, arched, commanding, pent up, leave me alone, I’ve got a migraine, what are you people doing here? Trading off between reclusive and brazen, isolated and commercial, harsh and blues sexy, Polly Jean looks away and whispers her ocean-deep secret treasures and then appears on the cover of New Musical Express topless prior to her band’s first album, Dry (1992).
In the face of all this and her relative undergroundness, the hordes have arrived outside the first-aid tent where Harvey’s been licking her wounds with riffs and from-the-gut utterances for more than a decade. And just in time for Stories from the City, Stories from the Sea, released Oct. 31 on Island Records. At a sold-out “last-minute” CMJ Festival performance in New York’s intimately ornate Bowery Ballroom last October, bundled fans lined up in whisper-crisp wind down to the end of the block, just in case someone left, knowing no one would.
And the lucky handful of fans who procure tickets for Saturday’s show at St. Andrew’s Hall are in for an equally intimate affair. Announced just an inkling more than a week prior to the show and on-sale for just seven days, only 500 tickets are available and there’s a limit of two tickets per person.
Born in 1969 in Yeovil, Somerset, and raised in Dorset, a county in the southwest of England, Polly Jean grew up on a sheep farm in a village of 600 people of which she was the only young girl. During one particular “Tonight Show” appearance years later, Harvey gave an enthusiastic description of how to wring a lamb’s testicles. Her parents, collectors of blues and jazz music, would often invite touring musicians to stay with the family as they passed through town. The travelers would return the favor by giving the young Harvey lessons on various instruments such as guitar, cello, violin, saxophone and drums. She played in a few bands in her hometown and then decided to continue her studies in art and literature in London. Which is where her music took off.
Harvey released “Dress” and “Sheela-Na-Gig” as singles, appeared on the aforementioned NME cover, released Dry, then Rid of Me, 4-Track Demos, To Bring You My Love, Is this Desire? and finally, this year’s Halloween treat, Stories from the City, Stories from the Sea.
Stories finds Harvey at an intriguing place in her career as the much-anticipated follow-up to Is This Desire?, which garnered her third Grammy and Brit Award nominations — not to mention her status as the first artist to be nominated three times for the Mercury Music Prize. Inspiration-wise, the record points to her stay in New York City for half of 1999 where much of the album was written. It also marks a return to her earlier, more energetic work. But while the bluesy stamina has been resuscitated and along with it a greater awareness of her vocal prowess, her trademark lyrical jagged edges have softened.
Isolation is said to bring innovation, while overstimulation contributes to saturated same-old. And perhaps Disneyfied city life sucked Harvey into the trendy hipster dwarf star. Still, sparkling moments operate the rescue mission. “Beautiful Feeling,” the most stark and direct song on the album, establishes this, along with “This Mess We’re In,” which is the most lyrically surreal. Both feature Thom Yorke’s voiced meanderings. “The Whores Hustle and the Hustlers Whore” is a classic post-punk psyche-rock flight through the air traffic of Lou Reed and Nico, with a little Patti Smith growl on the side. Harvey refreshes the sound with her voice’s natural spontaneity.
No matter what she does, it seems, the songwriter remains one of the most defining of our generation, not only because of her musical proficiency or lyrical brilliance. It’s because we’re spoiled with both. And in the midst of psychosexual starvation and gluttony, she manages to impress time and time again, each illustration more than the last.