“I do think Is This Desire? is the best record I ever made – maybe ever will make – and I feel that that was probably the highlight of my career. I gave 100 per cent of myself to that record. Maybe that was detrimental to my health at the same time.”
PJ Harvey’s fourth album came three and a half years after her previous record, the performative, modernist blues cabaret of To Bring You My Love, which had been a moderate crossover success and acclaimed in the music press. In the meantime she made Dance Hall At Louse Point with John Parrish, and collaborated with Tricky and Nick Cave (and had a relationship with the latter which inspired, allegedly, much of The Boatman’s Call).
James Oldham in NME gave Is This Desire? a 6/10 score, and lambasted it for being “wilfully uncommercial”. “It is an album tormented by visions of endless women doomed by their own circumstances. In the space of just 40 minutes, we’re presented with Angelene, Joy, Leah, Elise, two Catherines and countless other unnamed characters, all united by a sense of their own (almost comical) misfortune.” It’s worth noting that lead single “A Perfect Day Elise” is still PJ’s highest-charting – it reached number 25. It’s also worth noting that James Oldham is a man writing for an ‘indie’ magazine nearly 20 years ago, and Is This Desire? is a record about female desire that is pretty defiantly not ‘indie’, in that 4-boys-with-guitars-and-hair way that Britpop was the apex of. A final thing worth noting is that Is This Desire? was nominated for a Grammy for Best Alternative Music Performance of 1998. So what does James Oldham know?
Is This Desire? covers a huge amount of musical ground; it lives in that twilight space after Britpop and triphop when the British music press didn’t really know what to call anything. There are chunky, oppressive loops based around keyboards, electronics, and bass, and moments of delicate piano minimalism. Parts of it are intensely, wildly aggressive, as aggressive as anything PJ Harvey has recorded, and yet the overall feel of the album is hushed, subtle, almost withdrawn.
18 years on it feels like my favourite PJ Harvey album, alongside Let England Shake. The two records are similar in many ways, from their monochrome sleeves to their forward-thinking, backwards-referencing approach to a hidden side of history; history taken on painfully individual levels, rather than broad brush-strokes across cultures and societies. Only instead of war and atrocity, the characters here are victims of emotional violence, often, seemingly, of their own causing. Even the lyrically celebratory moments – like “The Sky Lit Up” – are rendered with a disconcerting edge (which would be almost completely shorn from the far more accessible and positively-received Stories From The City, Stories From The Sea two years later) that makes the album feel emotionally harrowing even as it describes things which seem positive when written down and divorced from their musical contexts.
This being a PJ Harvey album at record club, there was, as ever, a lot of talk about authenticity and performativity and autobiography. It seems, following The Hope 6 Demolition Project earlier this year, to me that Polly Jean Harvey has always been a historian in many ways, exploring primary, secondary, and tertiary sources in her music, both musically and especially lyrically. I know very little about her as a person, which seems to be how she likes it.
Let’s finish with another quote from Polly herself, from an interview around the time Is This Desire? was released: “the tortured artist myth is rampant. People paint me as some kind of black witchcraft-practising devil from hell, that I have to be twisted and dark to do what I am doing. It’s a load of rubbish.”