Shiny Happy Polly
The Gen-X Hendrix Reborn as a 50-Foot Softy
Songs from the City, Songs from the Sea
SHE'S LAIN WITH the Devil. She's gutted herself for love. She's made us lick her injuries, then ordered Robert De Niro to sit on her face. Now, after nearly a decade of plumbing the depths of longing to create a body of work virtually unparalleled in its vision and intensity, PJ Harvey has something new to divulge.
"And I feel like/some bird of paradise," an exuberant Polly gushes on Songs from the City, Songs from the Sea's second track, "Good Fortune." Over the sprightliest pop jangle of her career, rock's foremost chronicler of transcendental hunger finds herself full to bursting with a big, dumb love that permeates the majority of Songs' songs, and "It's the best thing/a beautiful feeling," as she croons two tracks later. So what if neither of these gushy couplets would've been allowed within the same zip code as her previous (and superior) records? She's in love, dammit, and if anyone's earned a vacation from misery, it's her.
Still, there's a reason eight out of 10 people prefer to hear friends griping about troubles than gushing about love. Tragedy makes better theater, and up to this point, Harvey has displayed an almost preternatural canniness with theatrics, from Dry's delicate, towering "Fountain," to the brilliantly sustained high-wire act of Rid of Me, to, best of all, the nightmare cabaret tour for To Bring You My Love, a visual and sonic hurricane that Harvey seemed to simultaneously conjure and battle, and one of the most powerful experiences I've had in a theater.
From the beginning, Harvey has drawn from sources far beyond her personal experience, and it's a testament to her genius (yeah, I said it) that her dramatic posturing never came off as schtick. Whether casting herself as a furious Eve or a haunted widow or a dreaming corpse, Harvey displayed an unfailing authority over herself and her subjects. This was no Sinéad O'Connor, tearing out her insides for her audience; this was a young artist smart enough to render her inner drives on a mythic scale, and talented enough to make us believe every pose she struck. Rock critic types have often claimed that Cobain was our Lennon; if this is true, then Harvey is our Hendrix: a singular talent, a beast of her own species. (Plus, as my favorite rock critic type, Robert Christgau, pointed out, Harvey is the only member of the new female rock regime who plays guitar better than she sings.)
Unfortunately, this singularity of talent and vision is largely absent from Songs from the City, Songs from the Sea--which is, don't get me wrong, a good, strong record, one that lesser artists would barter their souls to make. But for the first time, PJ Harvey's made a record that sounds like it could've been made by someone else. Musically, Songs draws either from Harvey's past work (the hard-hitting neo-blues riff "The Whores Hustle and the Hustlers Whore" could've been lifted from any of her last three records) or from the ambient pop stream she began dipping into on Is This Desire? On that record, Harvey used the smooth prettiness to buoy her ever-darkening romantic scenarios. On Songs, these sonics have less to contend with, as our formerly tortured Polly layers her pretty sounds with reveries of a love as corny as Kansas in August, as high as the flag on the Fourth of July.
First kisses, stars shooting across skies, feeling "the innocence of a child"--countless trademarked details of new love are presented with an earnestness and a naiveté previously unimaginable on a PJ Harvey record. It's a shock to hear someone wise beyond her years suddenly baring a schoolgirl's heart; then again, exposing herself as herself is probably the bravest thing she could do at this point--smart, too, as perpetually following her darker desires could eventually have rendered her a marginal artist, a chick Nick Cave. But for all the admirable theories behind Harvey's move toward the mushy center, the resulting work is the first music Harvey's made that doesn't demand that you pay attention.
Still, I suppose it's nice to learn she's fallible, and even better to know she's found a love worth singing about. (Respectable gossip has her linked with Radiohead's Thom Yorke, who duets on Songs' "This Mess We're In." But I don't like to think this is true, as I can't help envisioning these two intense, fragile creatures in a lovelocked 69, quietly sobbing into each other's genitals.) And Songs isn't all sunshine and flowers. The aforementioned "Whores" charts New York's dark side (again, somewhat naively), "Big Exit" finds Polly bemoaning "children sharp as knives" and begging for weaponry, and "Kamikaze" is a frenetic ass-kicker. But for the most part, love takes the day, and Songs swoons to a close with the almost Lilith-y "We Float," in which our starry-eyed lass vows to "take life as it comes." Thankfully, there's always the second law of thermodynamics to keep things interesting, and I imagine it will all go terribly awry soon enough. Till then, swoon away, sweetie.