December 22, 2009
albums of the decade (XI)
PJ Harvey - Stories from the City, Stories from the Sea (Island, 2000)
With her sixth album, Polly Jean Harvey came dangerously close to that refined musical wasteland called adult contemporary. This was her album to be "all grown up," to flirt with her maturity and the polished sounds of the studio. Even her more abrasive songs ("This is Love" and "Kamikazee") feel watered down and somewhat drained of their sexual energy. That said, Harvey has never sounded this confident in her ability as a musician, and it's unlikely that she ever will again. Ever the shape-shifter, Harvey's most cosmopolitan persona coincided nicely with the beginning of our new, self-consciously global millenium. It's no wonder the album was awarded the Mercury Prize the following year; it seems to capture some of the romance, the ambivalence of urban life at the beginning of the decade. I mean, I was only 12 at the time, but I sensed it. So mature for my age and all.
To be honest, it took me until 2004 to buy this album. By this point in time, I was well into my longstanding obsession with Peej; and even then, four years after its release, Stories... felt current. "Good Fortune" is one reason for this; it's quite simply a song to fall in love with. Another reason that Stories... still sounds so fresh is Harvey's almost timeless songwriting and her ability to inhabit characters from a wide historical spectrum (see 1995's To Bring You My Love or 2007's White Chalk). But as Harvey sings on "A Place Called Home," "Now is the time to follow through, to read the signs. Now the message is sent, let's bring it to its final end." She's still acting, of course, but this time she isn't playing a repressed Victorian or a prostitute from the deep South. This time round, it hits a bit closer home.
There are plenty more high points on Stories.... A stirring duet with Radiohead's Thom Yorke ("This Mess We're In") is definitely one of them. Like many of the tracks on this album, Harvey's lyrics on "This Mess..." show an awareness of the cityscape and her place within it, taking care to frame her own point of view. "You Said Something" is probably the most cheerful love song Harvey's ever written (given that the vast majority of her songs about love are brutally violent and sexually perverse; it's her schtick). This one turns out to be about a couple of ex-pats on a romantic excursion in Manhatten. Pretty great! But the album ends two completely depressing songs: "Horses in My Dreams," which is a bit of a dirge, and "We Float," which advises us to "take life as it comes" because "one day, we'll float." Is she talking about escaping to heaven? Or about drowing in a massive flood? Either way, I think she covers the same ground as Modest Mouse's 2003 sing-along, "Float On." I always thought she was more of fighter. And I'm glad she's bounced back.