Seeing [a]PJ Harvey[/a]’s debut album ‘Dry’ in Kurt Cobain’s list of his 50 favourite records of all time recently was
a startling reminder that
Polly Jean Harvey has certainly seen them come and go. Grunge, Britpop, nu-metal, Eminem,
the New Rock Revolution… she’s stood aloof
from them all, buoyed up by an unusually devoted fanbase who seem to believe that she can do
Indeed, the Peej certainly deserves props for
her farsightedness. She was doing angry, pared-down blues a full decade before [a]White Stripes[/a]. [a]The Kills[/a], too, are blatantly influenced by her,
the [a]Yeah Yeah Yeahs[/a] more subtly so. Her many image changes – from the bovver-booted dominatrix of ‘Rid Of Me’ to the slicked-up Shoreditch maven of last album ‘Stories From
The City, Stories From The Sea’ – have helped enable female rock stars to play with their sexual personae and still get taken seriously. (The evidence: a 1992 NME cover of [a]PJ Harvey[/a] topless caused a furore which seems ludicrous today.)
Unfortunately, despite the commercial success
of ‘Stories…’ and more Mercury Award nominations than you could shake a coffee table leg at, ‘Uh
Huh Her’ reinforces the growing suspicion that
[a]PJ Harvey[/a]spilt all the emotional guts she had on her first three albums and is running on empty these days. While tracks such as ‘The Letter’ and ‘Cat On The Wall’ have a malevolent swagger
[a]Black Rebel Motorcycle Club[/a] could only have nightmares about and
‘The Pocket Knife’ is an incantation far scarier
than anything on the [a]Liars[/a]’ witch-themed latest, the harsh truth is that ‘Uh Her Her’ pales beside
[a]PJ Harvey[/a]’s old stuff.
As imprecations against ex-lovers go, not many people could beat the title track on ‘Rid Of Me’
for sheer devastation and fury. The Life And
Death Of Mr Badmouth’ and ‘Who The Fuck?’
from ‘Uh Huh Her’ don’t even come close. The spookier, more folkloric side Harvey unveiled
to spine-tingling effect on ‘To Bring You My Love’
is still displayed in tracks like ‘The Desperate Kingdom Of Love’, but the voodoo has long stopped working.
Musically, we get a drastically reduced palette mainly consisting of a monochrome blues
sludge. Only ‘The Slow Drug’ takes us down
a path we haven’t followed PJ down many
times before, its pulsing keyboard and pizzicato strings sounding appropriately narcotic. ‘The
End’, meanwhile, is a short instrumental which, thanks to its wheezing harmonium, sounds like
a Nico outtake. And while Polly Harvey’s voice
can still switch from intimacy to anger as if on
a hair trigger, the sense of wracked desperation
to express herself that made those early albums
so thrilling is absent.
What remains is a grown up, broadsheet version of the old [a]PJ Harvey[/a] with a high fashion gloss miles away from the scarily thin quasi-drag queen of
a decade ago. No-one would seriously want
PJ Harvey to go through perpetual personal tortures for the sake of her art, but the unhinged aspects which made her so thrilling have been
long screwed down and made safe for middlebrow consumption. Kurt, one suspects, would have
been less than impressed.
Let’s face it, she should never have split up with Duncan.
Get ‘Uh Huh Her’ at the NME Shop