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“Big Exit,” the opening track on PJ Harvey’s remarkable new album, Stories From the City, Stories From the Sea, is a small miracle. A synthesis of “Barracuda”-period Heart and any-period Patti Smith, the song classic-rocks with such authority it almost makes you forget that Polly Jean Harvey began her career as a musical deconstructionist, cranking out a string of bare-bones, blues-damaged masterpieces that appropriated rock’s macho swagger for the purportedly fairer sex. Brittle but oddly sensual, Harvey’s early records also scanned as feminist, as if the objects of misogynist desire in classics like Led Zeppelin’s “Living Loving Maid (She’s Just a Woman)” and the Rolling Stones’ “Under My Thumb” had suddenly sprung to life desperate to tell their tales to anyone who would listen. Autobiographical or not, Harvey’s primitive yet skillful songs were often genuinely frightening, and they seemed especially resonant in 1995, rock’s so-called Year of the Woman. That year, Harvey released the amazing To Bring You My Love and was rewarded for her effort with heaps of critical praise, a comparison with Justine Bateman on Beavis and Butt-head, and a flirtation with mainstream success that never quite materialized.
If there’s any justice in the world, Stories should change that. The new album is easily Harvey’s most consistent and immediately pleasurable collection of songs, but it sacrifices none of the biting edge that powers the difficult-listening music featured on earlier efforts like Dry and the Steve Albini-produced Rid of Me. Harvey’s songs simply seem bigger this time out, and the sound she and her band create is correspondingly more lush, nearly theatrical. “Big Exit,” for instance, kicks in dramatically, a shimmering rhythm guitar already locked into hypnotic overdrive as the track begins. When Harvey’s voice arrives, it’s a siren’s wail, piercing and irresistible, beautiful but laced with both danger and bravado. “Baby, baby/Ain’t it true?/I’m immortal/When I’m with you” goes the song’s epic chorus, which Harvey delivers in an Ann Wilson-style near-falsetto. She could be singing to a lover, but the intimacy of her voice signals instead that she’s channeling immortality straight from the hearts of her listeners.
Elsewhere, the album is quieter and more contemplative. Radiohead’s suddenly ubiquitous Thom Yorke graces Stories with his quasi-operatic warble on two of the album’s tracks, including a duet with Harvey on the disc’s lovely showstopper, “This Mess We’re In.” Weaving their voices around a driving, minor-key chord progression, Yorke and Harvey sing-speak phrases that sound patched together from a cryptic breakup message: “What were you wanting?/I just want to say/Don’t ever change now baby/And thank you/I don’t think we will meet again.” The album’s somber closer, “We Float,” opens with a funereal piano figure and finds Harvey chanting ominously about a bottomless pit of desire: “We wanted to find love/We wanted success/Until nothing was enough/Until my middle name was excess.” The track’s cinema-sized chorus turns both ambient and redemptive, with Harvey reciting what sounds like a hard-earned mantra: “But now we float/Take life as it comes.” “Horses in My Dreams” is similarly ethereal, a languid dirge with barely veiled threats of self-destruction as well as accidentally-on-purpose allusions to Patti Smith album titles: “Horses in my dreams/Like waves, like the sea/On the tracks of a train/Set myself free again.”
Smith’s influence on Harvey’s music has been obvious from the beginning, but given that the city of the new album’s title is New York, the connection is now especially clear. “Good Fortune” may jangle and simmer like vintage Echo & the Bunnymen, but vocally it’s the track that owes the most to Smith. As Harvey chronicles the New York cityscape, name-checking neighborhoods and recounting drunken nights out, her voice takes on Smith’s reedy timbre and her phrasing borrows the poet’s deliberate cadence. Intoxicated by (and in) Manhattan, Harvey conjures an image of lovers walking through the city that also works as a Twilight Zone assessment of her cracked-mirror relationship to punk’s poet laureate: “When we walked through/Little Italy/I saw my reflection/Come right off your face.” Unlike Smith, however, Harvey never lets her poetry overpower a song; on Stories, she’s a rocker first and a lyricist second. And if that means that she occasionally turns in an awkward clunker like “All around me people bleed/Speak to me your song of greed” (from the otherwise stellar Smithlike workout “The Whores Hustle and the Hustlers Whore”), at least she knows enough to rectify things by, say, screaming like a banshee during the fade-out.
PJ Harvey the band does occasionally rekindle its singer’s brutally bracing sound of old. The raunchy rock ‘n’ blues of “This Is Love” features fuzz-toned power chords throbbing beneath Harvey’s lustful blueswoman’s delivery: “I can’t believe life’s so complex/When I just wanna sit here and watch you undress.” “Kamikaze” is the closest the record comes to punk. Set in motion by the muscular interplay between Harvey’s guitar and Bad Seed Mick Harvey’s bass, the track quickly turns manic, with the singer ranging wildly between an earthy lower-register buzz and a high-pitched scream.
In the context of the rest of the album, however, these strong tracks feel like requisite changes of pace, frenzied reminders of Harvey’s alt-rock roots. Stories is clearly of a piece with her earlier workit’s brimming with the same brainy, soulful intensity that’s been her trademark since her debutbut it’s also the singer’s most sophisticated record yet. Harvey seems less like an idiot savant this time out, more fully in control of a sound that, in the past, sometimes seemed to control her. Sure, this evolution makes Harvey seem a little less dangerous, but it also acknowledges that no one so complex can remain a primitive forever. To do so would be dishonest. And as Stories From the City, Stories From the Sea proves, dishonesty is one thing no one could ever accuse Polly Jean Harvey of. CP