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PJ Harvey by Maria Mochnacz
Photo: Maria Mochnacz / Courtesy of Funhouse Entertainment

PJ Harvey’s Rerelease Campaign Continues With Her Most Controversial Drop of Demos Yet

PJ Harvey’s Stories from the City, Stories from the Sea is seen in its track-by-track demo form, sparking debates over Harvey’s intentions while still being left in awe of her songwriting prowess.

Stories From The City, Stories From The Sea - Demos
PJ Harvey
Universal
26 February 2021

Some artists are better at controlling their legacies than others. While the albums they create should by themselves stand the test of time, some musicians realize the power that a narrative has, often going out of their way to make lines of intrigue and influence long after a record’s initial release.

Metallica, for example, have a notable talent for myth-making. In a 2017 interview with Revolver Magazine, drummer Lars Ulrich revealed that the band keeps a full-time archivist on staff who travels to studios and venues worldwide looking for recordings the band may have forgotten about. That has made their recent re-release campaign of their early albums a joy for fans to parse through, as each repackaged record came with a treasure trove of oft-bootlegged and some never-before-heard material that aided in bolstering Metallica’s already-enduring legacy.

On the opposite side of the spectrum, there’s Liz Phair, whose 1993 record Exile in Guyville routinely tops lists for Best Albums of the Decade, with her striking and frank lyricism reclaiming a confessional space that male rock artists so regularly dominated for decades. Those Guyville songs stemmed from a fabled, legendary set of demos she circulated in Chicago named The Girly-Sound Tapes, which became heavily sought after in an increasingly digital age. Unfortunately, following Phair’s turn towards mainstream pop in the early 2000s, she bolstered the commercial fortunes of her critically derided 2010 record Funstyle with a sampling of the Girly-Sound demos. Seen as a callous gambit to loop in her most devout fans, this move ultimately diluted her legacy, and the 2018 re-release of Guyville with all of the Girly-Sound demos again rang of a certain desperation.

PJ Harvey, meanwhile, knows exactly what she’s doing.

For all of the emotional bloodletting that comes out of Polly Jean Harvey‘s lyrics, she has kept her process remarkably open, inviting listeners in on her songwriting journey time and time again. Following the immaculate reception that her 1993 masterpiece Rid of Me received, she unleashed a compilation album called 4-Track Demos only six months later. Containing a fair share of songs she demoed for Rid of Me along with numerous unreleased cuts, 4-Track Demos quickly became a must-have item for Harvey’s increasingly-rabid fanbase. While the sound of Rid of Me and her 1992 debut Dry was already raw-as-can-be, it was still fascinating to see the artistic decisions she and Rid of Me producer Steve Albini made to give the songs their maximum impact.

Since July of 2020, Harvey has been on quite the warpath with her legacy, reissuing her albums on vinyl and providing full-length demo versions of each one in tandem. Heck, she’s even signaled that her two collaborative records with John Parish will also receive such a treatment. Already, discovering the way certain tracks differ from lo-fi demo to final form has been a treat: hearing the synth-heavy “A Perfect Day Elise” (a single from 1998’s Is This Desire?) stripped of its jangly lead guitar in its demo form makes one appreciate the pairing down and streamlining Harvey did before pushing it out into the world. In terms of controlling her legacy, she’s making people rediscover her catalog all over again, these complete sets of demos breathing new life into records that are over two decades old.

All of this leads us to the demos of 2000’s Stories From the City, Stories From the Sea. Still divisive in her fanbase given how much more “commercial” it sounded compared to her early works, Stories nonetheless remains one of her most popular albums next to 2011’s poetic and political Let England Shake. (Both of which, incidentally, received the coveted Mercury Music Prize.)

While Stories, itself a love-letter to New York City, has a big sound full of shimmering guitars and propulsive drums, the stakes are notably smaller here. Living her full rock goddess fantasy, Harvey pines for bedroom hookups (“This Is Love”), stability (“A Place Called Home”), and intimacy, both physical and emotional. While it may not cut with the venom of her past albums, Stories still has an identity all its own, as the canyon-sized choruses help amplify her intensely relatable desires. “This isn’t the first time I’ve asked for money or love,” she wails on “The Whores Hustle and the Hustlers Whore” before concluding, “Heaven and earth don’t ever mean enough.”

Yet what happens to Stories when it’s robbed of its epic production and Thom Yorke cameos? What happens when it’s stripped to its very core essence? As it turns out, not much changes at all because the songs remain as sturdy as ever. On the demo versions of Stories best tracks, drums are almost completely absent from the equation, leaving Harvey’s songs down to her voice, guitar, and sometimes a synth or bass part. Yet even in such basic renderings, the songs sound fully formed.

On “The Whores Hustle…” for instance, her segues between her verses and choruses are exactly as they appear on the finished studio version, with even her vocal yelps coming in at the exact same places. The finished versions of tracks like “The Whores Hustle…” and “A Place Called Home” vividly integrates elements from her demos, with the melodica breakdown on the studio version of “Home” being a particular sonic treat given the demo uses nothing but melodica all the way through. Even the caterwauling ball of guitar fuzz that is “Kamikaze”, itself a throwback to Harvey’s earlier sound, is even more in-the-red in its thrilling demo rendition.

Perhaps what’s been most striking about all of these “demo albums” is that while the contrast between Harvey’s rough sketches and the finished product is sometimes a bit extreme, the songs themselves do not fundamentally change. The lyrics are close to identical, the structure is locked into place, only the production, instruments, and textures being the only things going through revision. The demo of her six-minute Stories closer “We Float” still comes in at over six minutes, with Harvey updating the default Casio keyboard settings of the demo for something more polished and buoyant on the studio version. Even her e-bow’d guitar segue had been planned out in the demo, with the studio rendition just sounding that much smoother and deliberate.

No matter where you look, whether it be towards the pure Radiohead cosplay of “Beautiful Feeling” or the speaker-blown vocals of “This is Love”, it’s clear that the only major difference between the demo version of Stories and the final product is polish. Harvey has always been a consummate songwriter, with the words and melodies perfectly in place even in their most nascent forms.

In a theoretical world where only the demo version of Stories came out, it could be seen perhaps as a deliberate throwback to her earlier sound. Still, she made the conscious decision to go into the studio with multi-instrumentalists Mick Harvey and Rob Ellis to craft a grander, ringing vision of her sonic, resulting in a record that would eventually become known as her most accessible (and best-selling) to date.

Some still dismiss Stories as a lesser album in her discography, but doing so misses the point: in going full rock goddess, she used her big sound to highlight the quietest corners of her life, creating a strange tension that is often so easy to dismiss as uninteresting or even vapid. Yes, the chorus of “We Float” has her talking about her and her partner will take life as it comes, one misses the finer points where she worries about dying of shock, dying without a trial, dying on Good Friday — while holding each other tight.

Just because her lyrics aren’t as aggressive as her early records doesn’t mean they are any less nuanced. In its shimmering textures and night-drive atmosphere, Stories from the City, Stories from the Sea gives off a vibe that is unique to her discography that is serene, joyous, anxious, and bustling all at once. The sound of Stories is so unique that she never once repeated it on any of her subsequent records.

As her reissue campaign continues, it will be fascinating to hear how deliberately lo-fi efforts like 2004’s gritty Uh Huh Her and 2007’s ghostly piano nocturne White Chalk will fare in even more stripped-down demo forms. Yet as it stands, all the demo version of Stories does is reinforce what a truly great album it always has been. PJ Harvey doesn’t need to rewrite her legacy, but we still glad she’s making an effort to bolster it anyways: great songs retain their punch no matter what form we hear them in.

RATING 8 / 10
PopMatters