Mama Don't Take No Mess
It’s obvious from its cover photograph that Uh Huh Her is a deliberately stripped-down, lo-fi effort in comparison to PJ Harvey’s previous (and arguably best) album Stories From the City, Stories From the Sea. Both focus on singer/songwriter Polly Jean Harvey’s arresting visage, head cocked to engage the photographer head-on. The latter (winner of the 2001 Mercury Prize) captures her mid-stroll amidst the city’s neon shine and ubiquitous traffic, dressed to the nines, clutching purse and donning shades; the former is snapped by Polly Jean herself, riding shotgun in a car covering nondescript territory, shoulders bare and locked gaze foggy yet determined. This is, in a nutshell, precisely how Uh Huh Her differs from its predecessors and succeeds nonetheless: PJ Harvey can still pack a resonant, emotional wallop, even when the recording is devoid of frills.
Uh Huh Her doesn’t announce itself with a fury like Stories From the City‘s “Big Exit”; rather, “The Life and Death of Mr. Badmouth” methodically lumbers in with a guttural, caked-on syrup riff. Harvey sings with a weary moan, like the narrator of Stories From the City woke up at 4am, wondering where the hell she was: “Baby, you got a bad bad mouth/ Everything is poison that’s coming out/ Cheating, lying since the day you were born/ Someone oughta rinse it out with soap.” Harvey’s delivery transforms the song into a deliciously naughty vamp, her thick fuzz guitar finding its way in the darkness next to the primal drum pattern.
“Shame” continues the album’s groggy-eyed awakening, juxtaposing an unobtrusive drum loop next to Harvey’s pensive croon and drugged guitar strums. “I’d jump for you into the fire/ I’d jump for you into the flame,” Harvey sings over the song’s so-bare-it’s-nonexistent production. “Tried to go forward with my life/ I just feel shame, shame, shame.” The song’s melody falls like a simple jazz line over its steady backbone, the track content with its own pace and simple ambition.
The majority of Uh Huh Her is subdued and unembellished, like demo recordings that were left as-is for inclusion in the final sequencing stage. (Harvey handles the majority of the instruments, save the drum kit, which is manned by Rob Ellis, one of her core collaborators.) “The Pocket Knife” uses only guitar and tambourine for instrumentation, effectively illuminating Harvey’s cryptic, warning words: “Flowers I can do without/ I don’t wanna be tied down/ White material will stain/ My pocket knife’s gotta shiny blade.” “The Slow Drug” boasts scores of tape hiss alongside stark keyboards and harmony vocals; an empathetic lyric notes “headlights burning”. Both “No Child of Mine” and “The Desperate Kingdom of Love” render an impact with absolutely no frills, Harvey’s acoustic guitar and vocal as raw in presentation as was “50Ft Queenie”. “I’ll follow you into Heaven or Hell,” Harvey promises in “The Desperate Kingdom of Love”, her haunting voice and instinctive guitar playing picking up passion as a boulder barrels down a steep hill.
The warm smolder of Uh Huh Her is ignited by the inclusion of an occasional fit of temper and sensuality. “Who the Fuck?” is the record’s lone sonic outburst, its bluesy guitar punch stopping and starting in tandem with the vocal. “I’m not like other girls,” Harvey howls in defiance, “You can’t straighten my curls.” When the bass is dropped in after the first chorus, “Who the Fuck?” becomes an insolent tool of emotional swagger, ballsy and brutal, confident and bold. Mama don’t take no mess. The album’s first single, “The Letter”, drips with Harvey’s libidinous presence, elevating letter writing to a thing of sexual potency. “Put the pen to the paper/ Press the envelope with my scent,” Harvey purrs with longing, later adding: “It turns me on to imagine/ Your blue eyes on my words.”
To the album’s naysayers rapt with feigned disappointment, it’s important to keep a few things in mind. First of all, Stories From the City isn’t the über-glossy, see-your-reflection-in-the-mirror polish job that many would have you believe. Sure, it has its share of lush production values, but at its core is Harvey’s ragged, rough-and-tumble guitar, incapable of compromising its DIY aesthetic. Secondly, Uh Huh Her possesses a style that is reminiscent of Harvey’s earlier records (Dry, Rid of Me, and 4-Track Demos). While it may not continue to forge new stylistic territory like the more recent To Bring You My Love, Is This Desire?, or Stories From the City, Uh Huh Her milks passion from its same reliable source: the pen of Polly Jean Harvey. Shouldn’t that be enough? Too much emphasis is placed upon besting a perceived masterpiece, leaving an artist with nowhere to go but up when the ceiling is already inches from his/her head. If not instantly won over, give it some time; Uh Huh Her will woo its way into your head, your soul, and prominent stereo placement in no time.
// Notes from the Road
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