PJ Harvey – Is This Desire?: Round 97, Nick’s choice

“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as aggressive as anything PJ Harvey has recorded, and yet the overall feel of the album is hushed, subtle, almost withdrawn.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.”

PJ Harvey – ‘Let England Shake’ – Round 2: Nick’s Choice

PJ Harvey – ‘Let England Shake’

In a flagrant disregard for both the rules and spirit of Devon Record Club, a certain member of the Club, who could possibly be my direct line manager at work, expressed a preference over my choice for our second meeting. Not wanting to be bullied at work anymore than I already am, I acquiesced…

I’m joking of course, although Rob did say he was interested in hearing Let England Shake. It’s also, being very new (out on Monday) and receiving of gushing press coverage, a very zeitgeisty record right now, and seemed ripe for consumption and discussion.

I’ve written about it already on my blog to an extent, so I’ll try not to repeat myself here, and instead add a couple of comments that I mentioned as I introduced it last night.

Firstly, there’s a lot of talk about this being a “political” record (yesterday I was in Loughborough giving a talk at a conference, and in conversation with one of the other speakers this record was mentioned, and his first comment was “it’s meant to be political, isn’t it?”), but I think talk of its politics is a misnomer. Let England Shake is only political in the absolute broadest possible sense of politics being about people. There is a deliberate narrative distance afforded by the arrangements and (in particular) the vocal performances that, to me, says Polly Jean Harvey isn’t judging the things she is describing them except in, again, the broadest possible sense; these situations are horrific, they destroy people individually and collectively in a literal sense. She offers no solutions, offers no alternatives, doesn’t ask the listener to decline, just leaves a big gap which the listener can fill with… whatever they choose. Which may be a political reading, or a humanist reading, or an ignoring of the lyrics altogether.

Secondly, the arrangements here are terrific, and very sophisticated to my ears. The musical appropriations, whether compositional or sample-based, are interwoven in a way that reminds me of Public Enemy: the grooves (whether guitar or drum or autoharp driven) and melodies are appealing, invite the listener in, express an aesthetic (a kind of modern, post-shoegaze folk) that is familiar and comfortable, but the samples and appropriations are so incongruous, so off-kilter, so dissonant in some cases (musicologically or culturally) that they work against that comfort zone, repel the listener, and create a truly compelling and truly weird dichotomy, in much the same ideological way that the sirens and so on in those early PE records seemed like noise but worked like hooks. Melodic references to Surfin’ Bird and Summertime Blues in a “folk” song? Strange.

Lastly, I think this record, after a week, is a masterpiece. I find it incredibly moving emotionally, which is why I don’t think of it as a political record. It doesn’t encourage me to postulate or hypothesise; it forces me to empathise, to feel horror, in the juxtaposition of the Summerisle melody and double-thwack round-the-maypole lilt of The Colour Of The Earth with its horrific lyrics of war and loss and the delivery, so removed, so remote, so deadpan, like children 100 years after the fact singing about the black death without knowing what it means and their parents recoiling in horror when the punctum strikes home.

Rob listened: This prompted great discussion about the Polly Jean’s place in the pantheon, and in our culture in general. Had she been to the wilderness and back? Had she in fact been making great records all along? If so, why does now feel like a return to the fold, the anointing of a national treasure? Most importantly it sounded like a fine, rewarding album, rich in detail that I’ll look forward to exploring.

Tom Listened: I have never bought a PJ Harvey album! There, I said it! I think this is about to change. What a brilliant sounding record. Whereas in the past her power came from being powerful, she seems to have learnt that power can come from restraint too and her voice on this album sounds to me like honey rather than the swarm of bees of old. Nice one Rob Nick. Great choice.

Electrelane – ‘I Want To Be The President’

Given that PJ’s new album is only 40 minutes long, I was able to pick an individual track to play too. Given Electrelane’s announcement this week that they’ve reformed and arranged a handful of live performances (no mention of an album yet, but I live in hope) it seemed timely to pick this tune by Brighton’s finest all-girl krautpoppers. A bridging single between their debut and sophomore records, it marks the first time Electrelane used vocals in a song, and as such is something of an epiphany moment for them. It also, being produced by Echoboy (ex of The Hybirds), adds an electro-pulse to proceedings which is atypical of their later, Steve Albini-recorded sound, but still very much identifiable as Electrelane. One of my favourite bands of the 00s.

Aphex Twin – ‘Flim’

In yet more flagrant disregard for the rules, I forced a second song selection on the DRC, and played this beatific b-side to the ravenously extreme Come To Daddy single. It does, indeed, move me in ways that nothing else moves me, both emotionally and physically – head-nodding has been known.

Aphex Twin is known for his technical nous regarding beats and constructions, but for me his real genius is melodic; the Richard D James album achieves the same kind of push-me-pull-you dichotomy as discussed regarding the samples on the PJ Harvey album, juxtaposing sweet, childlike melodies with jackhammer beats. The beats here are less frenetic, but still offer a stark contrast to the beguiling melodic manoeuvres. Flim manages to be both uplifting and mournful and kinetic and blissful all at the same time. It’s a trick that’s fascinated and enchanted me for nigh-on 14 years.