PJ Harvey's sixth album purports to be a collection of songs drawn from experiences in various cities, and from her hermetic life on the English coast.
Yeah, there are tight leather-wrapped symbolist poets sat on the roof by the water tank all night, watching junkies and rent boys and the boys are always called Johnny and fucked-up flotsam and jetsam go by. It’s a place of 24-hour noise, of re-invented realities, where punk rock intellectuals sleep in the gutters and dream of horses galloping far, far away.
But enough of Poole. PJ Harvey’s sixth album purports to be a collection of songs drawn from experiences in various cities, and from her hermetic life on the English coast. In fact, from the opening chimes of ‘Big Exit’, the nervy guitars of Television recaptured, ‘Stories From The City, Stories From The Sea’ is a traditional New York record, both in texture and imagery. “Speak to me of heroin and speed/Of genocide and suicide/Of syphilis and greed”, she urges in ‘The Whores Hustle And The Hustlers Whore’, and you get the impression we sure aren’t in Dorset.
More pertinently, ‘Stories…’ is PJ Harvey’s best album since 1991’s ‘Dry’, a return to the feral intensity of that remarkable debut. For while it’s a cliché any frank woman singer-songwriter is ‘disturbed’ in some way, there’s no avoiding the fact Harvey’s last album, ‘Is This Desire?’, was unhappy; painfully-constructed third-person narratives buffeted by electro-industrial static.
‘Stories…’, however, is suffused with vitality. The clarity of the electric guitars played by Harvey, Rob Ellis and Mick Harvey is enough to make you fall in love with elemental rock all over again. When Thom Yorke adds his blustery yowl to ‘This Mess We’re In’, you wonder if it was the realisation he’d never write something as stark that prompted the itchy ambience of ‘Kid A’.
Harvey’s delighted at getting Yorke to sing, “Night and day I dream of making love to you now baby”, too. More than ever – check the snarling ‘Good Fortune’ and ‘You Said Something’ – she’s indebted to Patti Smith. Here, Harvey’s adopted her mentor’s positivity, so that the urban vignettes are filled with a lust for life. If the roar of ‘This Is Love’ represents the album’s sexual climax, the still moment in ‘One Line’ where she sings, “And I draw a line to your heart today, to your heart from mine/One line to keep us safe”, is its brilliant emotional fulcrum.
You could quibble Harvey has absolved her responsibilities by making an album earthed in the New York sound of 20 or 30 years ago. But when rock is so invigorating, so joyous about love, sex and living, all arguments are null and void. Hey, take a walk on her wild side.John Mulvey