Friday, September 14, 2007

[069] Stories From The City,
Stories From The Sea

Album: Stories From The City, Stories From The Sea
Artist: PJ Harvey
Release Date: October 2000
Label: Island
Producers: PJ Harvey, Rob Ellis & Mick Harvey [no relation]

“You’re the only story that I never told
You’re my dirty little secret, wanna keep you so
Come on out, come on over, help me forget
Keep the walls from falling on me, tumbling in
...This is love that I’m feeling”
- from “This Is Love”

Some albums are so straight-forward and exact; PJ Harvey’s fifth, most accessible album is just as she intended it to be, just as she intends you to hear it. Everything is in its place. It’s her record of “absolute beauty”. And that sort of piece of mind comes through in her lyrics. It’s not that she’s no longer searching; she’s always essentially been a blues singer in a post-punk world, so she’ll probably never be totally satisfied. I think the piece of mind comes from recognized adulthood, an understanding of what it takes to settle into life; this album was written around the time of her 30th birthday. She spent her 20’s scouring the inner dark soul of the modern woman for the secrets of post-feminism sexuality. And she’s kind of done; here, her words are more direct than suggestive. Stories is a declaration of maturity, not in an outward, public way, but inward, for self-reassurance. I think she might bristle at that notion, at the picture of the strong female artist, the survivor of years, still having to tell herself she’s good enough behind closed doors. But then, maybe not, because it seems to work; she sounds overwhelmingly comfortable on this album. And goddamn, she deserves the praise from someone, and if not herself then who? PJ Harvey has been making records for fifteen years now, and she’s managed to never release anything that’s less than good and/or interesting. That’s quite special. Even if you look around at her contemporaries, you realize that they’ve all fallen and been hauled off to triage. Courtney fell apart, Liz Phair lost the plot, and Alanis and the Lilith Fair crew just continued further and further down the middle of the road. Polly Jean Harvey can only really sit with company like Joni Mitchell, Marianne Faithfull, Joan Jett, and artists of that longevity.

OK so, PJ is still searching for those life answers, but if the question isn't 'what kind of artist am I, in the long run', then what is it. Well, PJ has always explored the topic of sex, and how it changes human interaction, and this album is pretty much about that all the way through. She’s repeatedly focused on sexual longing and alienation; the pull and the push, and those songs are definitely still here, but now she’s using a calmer approach, like she’s curious instead of frantic. “Big Exit” sounds at first to be addressing the shaky state of the world, with PJ pleading, “I’m scared baby, I wanna run; this world’s crazy, give me the gun.” That is until you apply the age-old gun-as-phallus metaphor. Suddenly, it becomes a song about sexual addiction, with the revealing chorus of “I’m immortal when I’m with you; but I wanna pistol in my hand; I wanna go to a different land” opening doors to many horny interpretations. But what are we exiting? Is it that she’s leaving behind these veiled poems? Because on the very next song, “Good Fortune”, she’s laying it all out there for the world to hear; the song features what may be her best set of lyrics, a sexed-up stroll through New York City with her new boy-toy, like if Carrie Bradshaw covered “I’m Waiting For The Man”. “In Chinatown, hungover, you showed me what I could do.” That is a wonderfully filthy statement when you think about it, but it’s delivered with complete confidence and no ego.

This boy-toy – there is never a clear idea of who he is, and it adds to the mystery of the songs. It's never even clear if he's just one person. PJ has claimed that her songs aren’t as autobiographical as people always think they are, but she wrote these songs about NYC after a stay there. It’s pretty linear thinking to conclude she had some nice times with a man. The mixed messages come when you realize that the songs on the record are pretty much split between finally finding true love, and depictions of romantic sexual flings. As a listener, you instinctually want to ask, “Well, which is it”, but you don’t because that would ruin it. I've always thought that Polly wants you to believe that both are possible at once. In a certain sequence, the songs can tell the story. “Good Fortune” and “This Is Love” (“I just wanna sit here and watch you undress”) begin the tale with sex as freedom. “You Said Something” speaks of a blooming romance "on rooftops in Brooklyn", while “A Place Called Home” continues (“Now is the time to follow through”), trying to spin a commitment out of the coupling. “Kamikaze” ends messy (“He walks his path, and I follow mine”), and “We Float” crumbles (“Somehow I lost touch when you went out of sight, when you got lost into the city, got lost into the night”). One thing is for sure: “Beautiful Feeling” and “This Mess We’re In” (both jaw-dropping duets with Radiohead’s Thom Yorke) give the impression that any reconnection was long distance, so whether it was love or lust, it didn’t last. But she's OK with that now, at least enough to write a classic album about it; she feels her bad fortune slipping away.

01. “Big Exit”
02. “Good Fortune”
03. “A Place Called Home”
04. “One Line”
05. “Beautiful Feeling” [feat. Thom Yorke]
06. “The Whores Hustle And The Hustlers Whore”
07. “This Mess We’re In” [feat. Thom Yorke]
08. “You Said Something”
09. “Kamikaze”
10. “This Is Love”
11. “Horses In My Dreams”
12. “We Float”

"Good Fortune" [video]

- BONUS: "Big Exit" [live on Later with Jools Holland, 10.01]
- BONUS: "This Is Love" [live on Later with Jools Holland, 10.01]
- BONUS: "The Whores Hustle And The Hustlers Whore" [live in Scotland, 07.04]
- BONUS: "You Said Something" [live on Letterman]
- BONUS: "A Place Called Home" [live in Australia, 2003]
- BONUS: "A Place Called Home" [video]
- BONUS: "This Is Love" [live on the Tonight Show with Jay Leno]
PJ meets Jay and Governor Ahnuld right after 9/11


Kim said...

YES! This album always makes me think of that weird time when I was finishing my painting thesis and newly dating Kyle. It was on heavy, heavy rotation while I was holed up in the studio.

Cynthia said...

niiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiice! I can never get enough of this album. I like pretending that I can sing One Line.