Thursday, February 4, 2010

PJ Harvey- Is This Desire?

For a full 19 seconds of silence, your breath hangs in the air. Then PJ Harvey's voice suddenly springs into your ear, sounding as if her lips are right against the mic. A stuttering drum beat begins just as she sings: "Joseph walked on and on the sunset/went down and down coldness/cooled their desire and Dawn said/let's build a fire." A muffled guitar chords after them in the background and we eventually reach the chorus: "is this desire/enough enough/to lift us higher/to lift above?" Soon the song ends just as suddenly as it began, leaving the listener with a sense of unease and palpable lack of resolution.

Is This Desire? is the sort of experimental, highly personal album that an artist has to make in order to have a career. Up to this point, PJ Harvey was only known for her earlier "trio" albums that featured bluesy, minimalist rock, as well as 1995's To Bring You My Love, her commercial and popular breakthrough. It's pretty telling that it took her three years to follow it up, a period of time in which she had a love affair with Nick Cave and likely got sick to death of touring and doing press. The end result is an album that tries all sorts of things, such as the lower singing voice on 'Catherine'; things that may not always work, but inarguably informed Harvey's music from here on out. Never again would she be known as just "that bluesy rocker chick" or "the chick who did that 'Down By The Water' song." It's hard to imagine her making an album like White Chalk without something like Is This Desire? to pave the way.

Like the title track described above, this is an album that lacks any sense of definite answers or resolution. The songs often feature no obvious big hooks or melodies, subsisting on intricate instrumentation, like the subtle use of piano set against the menacing bass of 'The Garden.' At the same time, there's a huge influence from electronic music on the album, taking Harvey far from her blues rock roots. Hell, 'Electric Light' could pass for a Portishead b-side if it wanted to. At the same time, 'No Girl So Sweet' attempts to meld Harvey's guitar rock side and her newfound electronic one, albeit not very successfully.

One can hear elements of Is This Desire? in every subsequent PJ Harvey album, although they're mostly done better on those occasions. This album's strength and weakness is the same thing: its sprawling, chance taking nature. In her own words, Harvey was using different techniques than she ever had before, also confessing that it was the most difficult album to make, one that was nonetheless "probably the highlight of my career." I think I know what she means. Even if her music is mostly fiction, Is This Desire? definitely strikes me as her most personal (one might say, insular) album. Despite its electronic beats and sometimes raging guitars, it's a headphone album in disguise: there's a lot of nuance, atmosphere, and subtlety to these songs. To put it another way, you need to have it right up against your ears so you can feel her lips as she sings about throwing your pain in the river ('The River') or the girl who only has nightmares, whose "sadness never lifted" ('My Beautiful Leah').

To put it yet another way, Is This Desire? is a very human album. Like all of us, it has flaws; like our lives, it is full of uncertainty and lacks definite resolutions. It may not be the best album Harvey ever made, but it is her most personal and human.

4 Poorly Drawn Stars Out Of 5

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