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In Top 10 Land, some musicians are permanent residents. You couldn’t budge Bob Dylan with a four-alarm fire, and Neil Young has been living rent-free for decades. This year, however, only one favorite of critics over 40 swept the year-end lists, and she’s barely over 30. Steely Dan, Paul Simon, Lou Reed, Sting, and even U2 got mixed reactions with their latest releases, but PJ Harvey’s Stories From the City, Stories From the Sea showed up on just about every above-ground list, from Spin and Rolling Stone to the New Musical Express to Entertainment Weekly (where she appeared as a footnote to Patti Smith, but that’s better than most other prestige acts did; EW’s list endorsed U2 as well, but its token old-timer was Johnny Cash).
Harvey stands for a lot of things: She’s a Brit phenomenon Americans can understand (and who understands Americaor at least New York), and the last grrrl rocker left standing (although Spin did reach back to 1999 for Le Tigre, Sleater-Kinney made the New Yorker list, and Courtney Lovethough probably not Liz Phairmay yet make a comeback that somebody takes seriously). Although she’s edgier than honorary ’70s-folkie-rocker Aimee Mann or instant oldie Shelby Lynne, Harvey above all represents continuity and tradition.
In a year when many critics tacitly admitted that they didn’t really like electronica, Harvey made an album that upholds traditional rock virtues: voice and guitar; sex and love, too; and real songsrather than an attempt to capture sonic mist in the digital equivalent of a bottle. Stories is vapor-free save for Thom Yorke’s voice.
Because she’s never acquired a mainstream audience (at least in the United States), Harvey also embodies the triumph of art over commerce. Yet she remains on a major label, so we know she’s not a self-indulgent crank. In the profligate ’70s, the big labels filled their rosters with such performers to prove that they had higher callings than simply making money. Warner Bros. was the most dedicated to this purpose, keeping the Kinks and signing the Beach Boys at a time when both had growing critical reputations and shrinking sales. The label also recruited such well-regarded eccentrics as Van Dyke Parks, John Cale, Jack Nitzsche, Ron Nagle, and many moreall guaranteed commercial nonstartersand promoted them through cheap double-disc samplers. I’m not sure if Warners broke a single one of these acts, but it did set up both the Kinks and the Beach Boys for comebacks on other labels.
These days, the idea of a prestige artist is almost quaint. Most contemporary critics are either trying to devise rationales for liking best-selling teen-pap and thug-hop or seeking out the most obscure varieties of nonselling “pop.” Making music that could (but doesn’t) engage a mainstream audience seems at best a form of obsolete philanthropy.
In fact, top-10 lists aside, it hasn’t worked out all that well for Harvey. Stories is solid, consistent, reliable. It’s hardly Harvey’s most inspired album, though. The official line is that the music reflects the singer in a good mood, but it sounds more as if she’s settling in, conserving her energy for the long haul.
Harvey’s Black Cat show last month gave much the same impression. In Salon, Greil Marcus wrote that at the singer’s New York gig, “there were moments when doors you didn’t know were there opened.” But, for Marcus, eating a potato chip probably opens doors he didn’t know were there. At the Cat, Harvey may have cracked open a windowbut nothing more. It was a good show, but it was the least risky one I’ve ever seen her play. “I just feel like/It’s the end of the world,” she sang, but it didn’t feel like that at all.
Of course, Harvey has outgrown the apocalyptic period of her career, as have her fans (most of whom are probably older than she is). Smith, the album’s most obvious influence, passed through the fire and came out a liberal housewifewhich is not at all a bad thing. Smith’s post-comeback albums don’t have the abandon of her earliest work, but she’d already lost that before going into retirement. And staying sexed-up and dangerous in the second (or fourth) decade of your rock career is problematic. Reed can keep riding that dirty-boulevard guitar forever, but his old S&M tropes looked a bit tattered when he pulled them out again for Ecstasy.
So Harvey isn’t really a kamikaze anymorethat’s fine. She’s a lifer, ready to adorn top-10 lists and multinational entertainment corporations for decades to come. She demonstrates that rock as self-expression is still valid, reassuring both the people who sell it and the people who buy it. Whether prestige is still a viable concept in today’s musical marketplace, however, is increasingly doubtful. Mark Jenkins
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