PJ Harvey storms into the opening bars of her new album with the force of a hurricane. It’s been two years since Harvey’s last studio effort, the insular, artistically disappointing Is This Desire? and the singer/songwriter makes it clear from the start of Stories from the City, Stories from the Sea that this will be a return to form.
And, indeed, it is. Once again, Harvey has taken the reigns on her music, playing lead guitar on every track and co-producing with bandmates Rob Ellis and Mick Harvey. Abandoning the poetic aspirations and studio experimentation that bogged down her last album, Harvey has returned to being a musician first and foremost, and her songs benefit immeasurably by her playing guitar on them. That’s the way it was in the beginning, when Harvey mesmerized audiences with her albums Dry and Rid of Me — stark, brutal collections that drew as much of their force from the muscular sound of her trio of musicians (then consisting of Harvey, Ellis, and Steve Vaughan) as Harvey’s shocking, semi-confessional lyrics.
There are some similarities between those early works and the new album. Harvey has, on most of the songs, returned to a basic guitar-bass-drums lineup, the sparseness of which makes her powerful voice the centerpiece. There are a few genuine rockers along the lines of her old material, most notably the ferocious “Kamikaze”. That’s where the similarities end, however.
Stories from the City, Stories from the Sea is by far the most mature, personal, and restrained effort of Harvey’s impressive career to date. Rumors abound that the songs on the album were inspired by Harvey’s stay in New York with her boyfriend last year. If we ignore the warning to always separate art from artist and take Harvey’s lyrics as autobiographical, then it appears that she’s in love both with New York and a fabulous guy.
It’s refreshing to hear Harvey, who once sang about chopping off the legs of a lover so he couldn’t leave, celebrating the joys of a male-female bond. Of course, a love song from Harvey is hardly sappy. Being the down-to-earth farm girl that she is, Harvey doesn’t revel in false sentiment. Take her simplistic wonder on the ethereal ballad “Beautiful Feeling”: “And when I watch you move / And I can’t think straight / And I am silenced / And I can’t think straight.”
Think of Stories as love songs for the new millennium — earthy, realistic, but ultimately hopeful. This collection is not the most powerful artistic statement Harvey has made, but it’s certainly her strongest endorsement of humanity — and that’s reason enough to love it.