Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Consumer Guide Album

PJ Harvey: Is This Desire? [Island, 1998]
Seeing Harvey in her most original live guise to date at the Hammerstein Ballroom, I didn't think Nick Cave or, heaven knows, Aretha Franklin. Instead I recalled the renowned art song singer Jan DeGaetani, whom I was dragged off to see 20-odd years ago. I didn't much enjoy DeGaetani--not my repertoire, let's say. But I admired her ease, her naturalness-within-formality, and more and more that's how it is with Harvey. In a charcoal suit and stacked heels plus red top, this was a concert artist repaying the adoration of her fans, but not so as she'd give them the early songs they wanted. Instead she concentrated on less immediate new material, which gained power in performance just as it does with repeated exposure on record. Melding modal tradition and concrète futurism, dancing to the strong beat as the moment required, she sounded so good she made what she had to say irrelevant. Which was and remains just as well, because what she has to say is limited. Is this desire? It must be, because all she's certain of is that her characters rarely get what they want. Hence, neither do listeners who want formal command to provide some release. While every song here kicks in eventually, starting with the two-minute "The Sky Lit Up," at times she could be the rock Wynton Marsalis. So thank God she'd rather be Tricky. A-