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Review: PJ Harvey soars on wings of 'Desire'

Web posted on: Friday, September 25, 1998 12:29:28 PM

From Reviewer Wendy Brandes

(CNN) -- Polly Jean Harvey is a freak of nature -- a butterfly who went back to the cocoon and reemerged free of the decorative excess that previously kept her earthbound. "I'm lighter than I've ever been," Harvey sings on her new album, "Is This Desire?", and indeed, she soars.

The singer/songwriter/guitarist made her debut in 1991 as the hard-rocking heart of the PJ Harvey trio. She gained visibility in 1995, when the painted lady in her burst out with her fourth album, "To Bring You My Love," a bluesy, bass-heavy paean to sexual obsession.

Sound Clips

[225Mb MPEG-3] or [310k WAV]

[265Mb MPEG-3] or [360k WAV]

"Is This Desire?"
[275Mb MPEG-3] or [375k WAV]

[250Mb MPEG-3] or [340k WAV]

"The Sky Lit Up"
[235Mb MPEG-3] or [325k WAV]

Having disbanded her original trio, Harvey took center stage with the subtlety of a drag queen doing Joan Crawford -- her stance with "Love" a parody of a vamp in Mother's high heels and a stretch catsuit, broad swaths of red lipstick and blue-green eye shadow crowned by Frida Kahlo eyebrows. She sounded more pathological than romantic, her voice climbing from a dybbuk's growl to a banshee wail as she vowed she had "cursed God above/forsaken heaven to bring you my love."

Steps away from the brink

On "Desire," Harvey steps away from this emotional and cosmetological brink without losing her edge, viewing her old torment with curiosity and hard-won wisdom.

The result is her most sophisticated work yet.

Her voice is more melodic and the music is more diverse -- favoring stripped-down guitar rock and danceable electronica over the '80s-arena-concert orchestration that pervaded "Love."

"My Beautiful Leah" does recall the last album's more dirge-like vocalizations, but its namesake doesn't dominate the stage. Leah, the woman who "only had nightmares," who was "always so needing ... even as I held her," is only a memory: "Did you see her walking/Did she come around here, Sir?"

Several other songs are named after women, and the device lets Harvey try on different personae without becoming trapped in a single one. The temptress of "Angelene" is the "prettiest mess you've ever seen." Over a tinkling piano, she purrs, "Love for money is my sin/Any man calls, I'll let him in." Elsewhere on the album is Angelene's opposite: "Joy was her name/alive, unwed/30 years old, never danced a step."

"Desire" is blessedly free of the burning deserts and first-person fantasies of manipulative or murderous mothers that made listening to "To Bring You My Love" feel like a vicarious psychological collapse. Even the elements are kindlier. Three years ago, Harvey sobbed, "Big black monsoon, take me with you." This time, rocking out in "The Sky Lit Up," Harvey sees "the stars and heaven above/shine on my own beautiful friend/shining on my own beautiful love." Angelene may say, "Dear God, life ain't kind," but she adds that "I've heard there's joy untold."

Even the old mingling of pleasure and pain is more alluring when it comes from a position of strength. Her voice going husky in the hypnotic "Catherine," Harvey intones, "Till the light shines on me, I'm damned to hell/every second you breathe."

The impression she leaves is that she'll tough out damnation.

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