Catherine wanders the beach, looking across the ocean, trying to forget all the men she’s let in. She builds herself a shrine and dreams of torture on the wheel. Joy’s innocence is nearly terminal, and hope is a joke in her rural, isolated life. And then there’s that player Joe, whom Elise kicks out of her life, but only after one more fling. Is this desire? Are you kidding me?

Yeah. Hell yeah. Urges, longing, unvarnished need: These have always been P.J. Harvey’s bread and butter, emotional chaos her true milieu. Hearing her sing of craving and loss is like watching Brer Rabbit navigate a brier patch. Like Hal Hartley, whose new movie she stars in, playing Mary Magdalene (perfect, just perfect), Polly Jean Harvey has built her career on knowing that desire is something you have to survive. When it come to psychic distress, she’s a one-woman, world-class wrecking crew. Is This Desire? channels her power into some of her career’s most elegant songs.

Unlike many of her 28-year-old peers, Harvey knows she’s not exactly inventing the wheel here. She’s never been one to shy away from dropping footnotes in her work, openly drawing on everyone from Howlin’ Wolf to Palace. But to trace her career is to find one name at the heart of her changes. No matter how much feedback and hiphop falls in and out of her work, her heart belongs to Robert Zimmerman from Hibbing, Minn. (The title alone could have told you that; it would surprise no one if she knew Dylan’s 1975 stunner like the back of her hand.) Dylan was and is the consummate trickster storyteller, morphing his music and reshaping his tales on a whim, weaving himself in and out of his work so subtly that you can hardly tell where he ends and his fictions begin. He’s never really made records the same way twice, shifting his backing bands as often as his characters—as when he dumped Mike Bloomfield in favor of the Band—constantly looking for the perfect beat.

Harvey’s seen that movie before. After making two extraordinary records (Dry and the brilliant, visceral Rid of Me) as leader of an ovas-to-the-wall rawk trio, Harvey scrapped her rhythm section and rebooted, recruiting such folks as the Birthday Party’s Mick Harvey (no blood relation, but lots of aesthetic ties), Pere Ubu’s Eric Drew Feldman, and Joe Gore from Tom Waits’ band to lend her next work, 1995’s To Bring You My Love, a thicker, more ambient sound. That record brought “snake-moan” seduction and glossy keyboards where there were once personal evisceration and guitar thunder. Even Beavis and Butthead noticed. She followed that up with 1996’s neo-blooze Dance Hall at Louse Point, moaning along to former bandmate John Parish’s songs. When last seen, she was holding down guest slots for Tricky and Nick Cave, two guys she was pretty much born to hang out with.

Desire’s stately ballads are a logical outgrowth of To Bring You My Love, but Harvey wipes away the earlier record’s ambient rumble in favor of dignified piano and random acts of breakbeat. The band is largely the same as that on My Love, with one bizarre exception: Rob Ellis, her mighty drummer from the trio days, so critical to the emotional matrix of the first two records, has returned to the fold. The mix does him in completely; he might as well be a sample. Why on earth did she bother?

Producer Flood should answer for some of this mess. Well-meaning folks screamed bloody murder at the impossibly matte finish Steve Albini gave Rid of Me; one hopes that their anger is equally directed at Flood’s fists of ham. While he occasionally seems to give fractured voice to her tales of disconnection, the zippier songs suffer most from his heavy hand. “No Girl So Sweet” sounds like something that strayed away, unmissed, from Zooropa. Harvey parks some of the year’s best sex ‘n’ salvation lyrics in the middle of the raucous “A Perfect Day Elise” (“God is the sweat running down his back/The water soaked her blond hair back”) only to have them undercut by gluey sonics. But, in all fairness, there are points where everyone seems to be on the same page. Metallic percussion expertly counterpoints “Joy”‘s apocalyptic vision (“Joy was her name/Alive, unwed/Thirty years old/Never danced a step”). The opener, “Angelene,” is Harvey’s first perfectly executed ballad, graceful and regal in the face of despair.

Such highs make Harvey’s variances that much more frustrating. Desire’s 40 minutes are populated by some of her most fully realized characters. Catherine, Dawn, Leah, and the ubiquitous blues victim/rake Joe wander in and out of (each other’s?) lives, causing longing and wreaking havoc. Maybe the Joe of “Elise” is the same one who ends up with Dawn in the title track; maybe it’s Polly herself. (The way classicist Harvey writes, this guy Joe may very well be the same dude who went downtown to shoot his old lady.) Her influences poke their heads in now and again. “Catherine” and her Hammond organ could have come in off of Highway 61 (“I gave you my heart/You left the thing stinking”) and “My Beautiful Leah” and her subsonic feedback seems like the kinda girl Nick Cave would obsess over. But their stories are all hers, and her remarkable voice comes through in the clutch, making the hoariest of clichés (“Is this desire/Enough/To take/Us higher?”) sound as if she thought ’em up that morning. If P.J. Harvey’s true desire is to become that trickster storyteller, she’s already there.CP