P J HARVEY Is This Desire? (Island)

I wasn’t intending to buy this, especially after a fairly negative review in the normally reliable NME, but having caught the marvellous "A Perfect Day Elise" single on "Top Of The Pops" (I was waiting for "Fawlty Towers", officer, honestly!) I gave in. Not being a major league P J Harvey enthusiast ("Rid Of Me" too raw for my delicate ears, "To Bring You My Love" great but a little too obviously in debt to Captain Beefheart and Tom Waits) I was pleasantly surprised to find my instincts were right: "Is This Desire?" is, for me, her most coherent and consistently interesting work since that groundbreaking debut album "Dry".

Like many albums released recently, those from The Smashing Pumpkins and R.E.M. included, "Is This Desire?" seems to be treading on some kind of primitive electro path. Elderly drum machines clang and fizz under distorted vocals and not over-elaborate melodies, as if people too young to be goths have been suffused by the spirit of acid house. All this tends to heighten, rather than diminish, Polly Jean’s alternately hollered and crooned tales of woe in a mannner that yer standard issue guitar racket could never do. And woeful those tales certainly are: "Is This Desire?" has to rank as one of the most consistently gloomy records since Ms Harvey’s old mate Nick Cave’s "Murder Ballads", made especially plangent by the stream of narrative characters (Angeline, two Catherines, Leah, two Joes, Elise and Dawn) that populate these songs.

No fun at all, of course, but sledgehammer powerful, if you’ve wavered from the path of P J Harvey fandom at any point during the last five years now would be an ideal time to lend an ear again. (A word of caution if you buy the vinyl - both of the copies that have passed through my hands stuck on track 11, "No Girl So Sweet", suggesting a pressing fault, so your (well, my) options are limited to hanging on to an imperfect copy or waiting a few months in the vain hope that Island will repress it...)

P J HARVEY Stories From The City, Stories From The Sea (Island)

Why hasn't this album snagged me? Third best long player of the year according to the NME, widely trumpeted as a return to Ms Harvey's rock form after years tilling the avant gardens of lo-fi ("Rid Of Me"), blues ("To Bring You My Love") and all manner of loops and reels ("Is This Desire?"), and it even has Thom Yorke singing on it (which is more than can be said of the last Radiohead album…), but for some reason "Stories From The City, Stories From The Sea" has failed to lodge in my consciousness, and I'm a fan. Maybe the production is a mite too squeaky-clean, perhaps the all-pervading air of peak-period Patti Smith-ness doesn't sound so strikingly original to anybody whose hugged their copy of "Horses" close for years, perhaps it's even something as selfish as the fact that Polly sounds happier than she's ever been in song…and what use can we possibly have for happy rock icons? Whatever: here are twelve lovingly honed songs, expertly played by a minimal, ambidextrous band (including long-time associate Rob Ellis and Bad Seed Mick Harvey), and inexplicably it just doesn't seem enough.

PJ HARVEY Let England Shake (Island)


Let England Shake”, PJ Harvey’s eighth solo album, is a work of genius and undoubtedly the best new album I heard in 2011. In it, Harvey and accompanists summon the ghosts and shadows of trench of warfare to a Dorset church, fashioning a meditation on loss, damage and Englishness that sounds like war poetry set to a glorious random grab-bag of cacophonies and etherea.


 “The Last Living Rose” compares the River Thames with “gold, hastily sold for nothing”, cleverly tying it to the economic woes of recent times. “The Glorious Land” weaves together “elements from” The Police’s “The Bed’s Too Big Without You” (protective legalese for “sounds a bit like”, I suspect), inspiration from a book entitled “Russian Folk Lyrics” and a sample of an Irish Guards bugle call into a damning indictment of a nation misled to war. “The Words That Maketh Murder” taps stark, bloody snapshots from a scrambled, shellshocked mind, dropping in an ironic quote from “Summertime Blues” for its United Nations reference, and “All And Everyone” shapes more of those images into a study in futility and finality. The mystical jangle of a melody that threads through“On Battleship Hill” sounds like the wind that carries the scent of thyme in its lyrics, Harvey’s voice keening like a violin. “England” is kept off kilter by a wailing Kurdish vocal sample, and the clatter quietens for the “unburied ghosts” of the hushed, elegiac “Hanging In The Wire”. Similarly, “The Colour Of The Earth” is a stark, bluff depiction of trench warfare, emotions pared away leaving just the brutality of the facts. The album is at its mysterious best, though, on “Written On The Forehead”; with its references to belly dancers, dinars, generators and sewage it seems like an artefact from a more recent conflict than the rest of the record, tied together by a brilliant, nagging sample lifted from Niney The Observer’s “Blood And Fire”.


This is an important record: that Polly Jean has played songs from it to two serving British Prime Ministers on television should cement it into the history books if, by some crazy quirk of fate, the music doesn’t do so of its own accord. Powerful, intelligent, challenging, daring, deeply musical, in some kind of alternate universe she’d be closing the Olympics or serenading the Queen with this music.