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Dusting ‘Em Off: P.J. Harvey – Is This Desire?

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In 1995, when alt-rock stations were where I went for new music, I fell in love with a mysterious voice chanting, “Little fish, big fish, swimming in the water / Come back here, man, gimme my daughter.” The song was catchy but not the stuff of Top 40. I quickly learned it was “Down by the Water” by PJ Harvey.

At that formative age of 12, I was beginning to explore different genres of music but didn’t have a cache of magazine subscriptions and access to the blog-o-sphere to help me discover new artists. I didn’t even have MTV yet, which would’ve made life a lot easier had I had access to 120 Minutes. Somehow I sampled other tracks from the album, yet I was less than enthused, so I didn’t buy it.

Jump forward a few years and I’m 15, watching PBS’ Sessions at West 54th, a viewer-supported version of VH1’s Storytellers. That night I watched PJ Harvey perform tracks from her latest album, Is This Desire? She didn’t sing any songs I knew and the ones she did sing were full of whispers, shrieks, and hollers. I was confused. Yet for some reason I bought the album.

I have to confess: 1998 is one of music’s holy years for me. Maybe it’s because I was a teen or because (as my friends say) I have a thing for crappy chick music. Nonetheless, Tori Amos, Lauryn Hill, Rufus Wainwright, Garbage, Lucinda Williams, Liz Phair, Alanis Morissette—they all released albums that year that I’ve memorized word for word. Still, I find Harvey’s Is This Desire? to be an album that aged far better than even I expected.

Consider Harvey’s catalogue up to that point: LPs driven by guitar, drums, and lyrics that made you never want to cross her in a dark alley. Then listen to the opening notes of “Angelene,” the album’s opening track. A sad guitar moans, piano plods, and Harvey embodies the titular character to admit she’s “the prettiest mess you ever seen.” Once the drums kick in…well, they add a pulse to the song but you’re not going to need earplugs. “A Perfect Day Elise”, the lead single, is one of the catchiest things she’s ever done and has an irresistible guitar groove, looped drums, and dark, layered vocals that seduce you into bouncing your shoulders.On the a few cuts, Harvey lets out her signature screech and the hint of a standard rock band surfaces, but she also whispers on several tracks.

Make no mistake: This is a character-driven album. On “The Wind” and “Catherine” she dissects St. Catherine’s persona. We also hear about Leah, Elise, Joy, and Dawn through various songs. At no point in these twelve tracks am I certain an “I” or “me” refers to Harvey herself.

So a decade later, why does this album matter if it didn’t seem to matter all that much then? Looking at her discography, Is This Desire? is an obvious shift in her style. Seeing as Harvey never makes the same album twice, it’s interesting that you can pinpoint a shift in her album styles. Ten years later, she has yet to return to the rockers that filled her earlier breakthrough albums. She approached the sound in 2000’s Stories from the City, Stories from the Sea, but added a glossy production that pissed off many fans and proved she wasn’t interested in repeating her early successes. Last year’s knockout, White Calk, was a quiet collection of songs that centered on piano and her upper register.

Perhaps most important is just how smart Harvey proves to be on Is This Desire? Like many artists who released albums in 1998 (see my list of favorites a few paragraphs up), she dabbled in electronic gadgetry more on this LP than on any other since. Yet, it’s not dated, it’s not a dance album, and it would sound at home if released today. The programmed drums and digital white noise augment her lyrics and set a mood for the entire album. Plus, she’s sort of nerdy. The twelve tracks are littered with literary references that I admit I’m still discovering after hundreds of listens. Salinger, O’Connor, God (via the Bible)—they’re all over these songs. Some lyrics are lines lifted directly from the source. Yet, you don’t need to recognize the allusions in order to follow her narratives. Seeing as I have to listen to every Of Montreal release with Wikipedia and Bulfinch’s Mythology on hand, it’s nice to hear an artist who can make literary work that doesn’t need footnotes.

All this said, I can’t imagine in the annals of 1990s rock Is This Desire? will replace either Rid of Me or To Bring You My Love as her masterwork, but it’s the album I would put in a time capsule. It shows Harvey at a turning point in her career but doesn’t sacrifice the complexity or artistry that she still delivers.

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