Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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New Vistas of Frustration

The British songwriter, singer, and guitarist Polly Jean Harvey is without question the most critically lauded rock and roller of the '90s, and the hosannas are sure to continue with Is This Desire? Like every PJ Harvey album since 1992's Dry announced her as a force to be reckoned with, her new one is intense, imaginative, and certain of its own significance. Once again yoking the indubitably traditional to the overtly experimental, it opens new vistas of thwarted fulfillment in a sonic quest that doesn't sacrifice emotional resonance to avant-garde posturing. To any reasonably open-minded fan who takes the trouble to listen, it leaves no doubt that it's an Important Record.

Harvey's fifth album overall, Is This Desire? is only her first since 1995's meditative, modulated, yet still feral To Bring You My Love, which topped every critics' poll in sight. But not only was the three-year hiatus no surprise, it was written into Harvey's prospectus before To Bring You My Love was in the stores, affording her the kind of secluion and space all serious artists require. And although Harvey has earned her reputation as frail and high-strung, she didn't lie around nursing her megrims. In addition to numerous cameo collaborations, she worked with her old guitarist friend John Parish on Dance Hall at Louse Point, which was released as an album and performed live by the Mark Bruce Dance Company; she exhibited sculpture across Great Britain; she played Mary Magdalene in Hal Hartley's forthcoming film, The Book of Life. Harvey regards Hartley as a fellow spirit, exclaiming on her video press kit: "Here was somebody saying in film what I've always tried to capture in music, what I think everyone tries to capture--a completely fragile and funny quality to life."

At 28, Harvey has amassed the kind of cross-cultural credibility few rock artists achieve in a lifetime. In the rock world itself, though, the acclaim had been instantaneous, spanning generations. Steeped in blues usages and an expressionist aesthetic, she won the trust of boomers with an animus toward the busy beats and ironic persona-tweaking of the punk- and funk-schooled. But her raw music, sexual bravado, avant-garde alliances, and will to confound gender stereotypes were more than enough to convince Alternative Nation that her heart was in the right place. This was a remarkable consensus, one approached in this decade only by Sinéad O'Connor and Kurt Cobain. Yet all her adulatory press and hard work on the road, where she led a fierce band of avant-rock adepts through nine months of promotion, failed to propel To Bring You My Love beyond cult levels. According to SoundScan, the album's sales in the United States have barely cleared 300,000, not exactly O'Connor or Cobain territory. And while many critical cynosures suffer commercial shortfall, the specifics of Harvey's case are worth pondering.

Although the PJ Harvey sound is always distinct and identifiable, it never stands still. Rid of Me articulated a colder side of the sexual seeker who had bared her breasts on the back cover of Dry. Before 1993 was over, another album, 4-Track Demos, offered up more vulnerable productions of many of the same furioussongs. And To Bring You My Love revealed the sexual seeker as the spiritual seeker so many sexual seekers turn out to be. At the same time, it steered her sound subtly to the right, employing backup musicians far more skilled than the unpolished trio Harvey keyed to her own guitar on the first three albums and exploiting the voice lessons she'd decided she needed. Muting her punky, new-gun-in-town defiance, the relatively mature rock that resulted was clearly conceived to suit the philosophical reach of the songs, and had the not undesired side effect of upping her reputation a final peg. But it was by no means bright, smooth, or accessible enough for Jo Fan.

Is This Desire? proffers no further compromises. Structurally, linguistically, and thematically, the songs are Harvey's starkest ever, and the music demands to be met halfway. One way Harvey demands aural participation is with dynamics. Ever since Rid of Me, she has made it her rather annoying practice to vary recording levels, so that if you begin by playing an album at moderate volume some tracks all but drop from earshot. Typically, "The Sky Lit Up," a rapid-fire hit of ecstasy that recalls the early Roxy Music rave "Virginia Plain," is followed by the mystic revery "The Wind," which Harvey literally whispers. Similarly, the uptempo single "A Perfect Day Elise" disappears into the murmured "Catherine."

One consequence of Harvey's involvement with blues (her mother was a part-time concert promoter who put bluesmen up in their Dorsetshire home) is that she's always been a guitar heroine of sorts. But her commitment to this boomer tradition hasn't hardened her against the dance-derived electronica that has occasioned so much of Britain's musical action in the '90s--in 1995 she proudly toured with the then-obscure trip-hop auteur Tricky. So it seems natural enough that as Is This Desire? progresses, several songs dispense with guitar-rock in favor of lowing synthesizers (the barely audible "Electric Light"), simulated foghorns ("Joy"), and simplified drum-and-bass ("The Garden"). Harvey's musical astuteness and experimental perfectionism insure that these tracks offer more to the ear than, for instance, the desperate dabblings of Rickie Lee Jones's 1997 Ghostyhead. But the sonics are less engaging than Tricky's. And while Tricky is one of techno's premier sonic architects, when he wanted to make a pop move on his current album he asked Polly Jean Harvey to sing along, seeding a planned album-length collaboration.

All of which is merely to observe that--by pop-music standards, and maybe anyone's--Harvey embraces an aesthetic of difficulty. The closest she comes to crowd-pleasing (which may be the reason she sets us up to play her records loud) is still when she rocks with abandon--on the last album's "Long Snake Moan," or "The Sky Lit Up," an incandescent whoop of female-adolescent self-realization that defines the experience of freedom in under two minutes. Of course, as Harvey must know, it makes sense that the song ends so soon--the experience of freedom usually does. And when your thoughts turn to longings unsatisfied, as Harvey's do, why shouldn't the music mirror your frustration?

Again and again on Is This Desire? a woman--often named (Elise, Catherine, Joy, Dawn, Leah, Angelene), presumably to signal Harvey's determination to sink the universal in the fictional specific--seeks but does not find. When the music is fast, energy doesn't equal optimism, and usually the tempo is medium at best. Four or five times Harvey assumes the persona of a man who believes he came within a hair of accomplishing the woman's salvation--by possessing her, of course--a faith Harvey seems to find touching and oddly inspiring. On "The Sky Lit Up" and a title song that signifies its good hope by ending in a question mark, she gets so inspired that failure remains in abeyance. Most of the time, however, it's just the way life is for the most critically lauded rock and roller of the '90s.

Expanding on the turbulent resignation of To Bring You My Love, this tragic mood is entirely sane--in fact, more conventional than Harvey may realize in a world where we're not supposed to get what we want. But the songwriting is a notch less surefire. And whether it's the "completely fragile and funny quality to life" that "everyone tries to capture" is another question altogether. It's fragile for sure, but definitely not funny ha ha and really not so funny peculiar. Anyway, not "everyone" finds thwarted fulfillment so significant.

The songs that listeners are most likely to connect with on Is This Desire? mitigate the frustration with some musical benison--the surging chorus of "Angelene," the wanton's lament that opens the album; "A Perfect Day Elise" rocking to nowhere; the atmospheric allure of "The Garden" and "The River." From the Rolling Stones and the Clash to Nirvana and Sinéad O'Connor, many rock and roll artists have exploited the old blues tactic of granting a liberation in rhythm and melody that's undecut in the lyrics, and Harvey isn't the first to darken the formula a few shades. Nor is she the first to outgrow the burst of youthful chutzpah that her earliest fans loved. She pursues her vision with integrity, originality, something like genius. But if Jo Fan never catches on, her champions have no right to feel indignant. The choice is Harvey's own.

New York Times, Sept. 27, 1998