Tuesday, March 16, 2010

... and replugged - P J Harvey 'Stories from the City, Stories from the Sea'

Well, we’ve now seen Thom Yorke the Radiohead frontman (28th September 2009) and Thom Yorke the soloist (yesterday), it seems only right that today I give some attention to Thom Yorke the backing vocalist. It’s kind of hard to imagine, I know, but when the person he’s backing is someone as sensational as P(olly) J(ean) Harvey then it’s hardly surprising that even someone of his stature is more than happy to be in the background.

P J Harvey’s album Stories from the City, Stories from the Sea was released in 2000, and it’s music that goes into those dark and dirty crevices of the human experience, music that pumps with its hard headed beats, music that has had everything good and bad and ugly driven through its veins.

Her disaffected, howling good voice comes at you, gloves removed, right from the opening ‘Big Exit’ and straight away you know that this is a voice, and that this is music, not to be messed with. It’s hard, and it has lived hard but, precisely for that reason, you know it has a lot to tell you, and that there’s a lot you can learn from it.

Listen to ‘A Place Called Home’, and you will see how beaten and broken a voice can be, and yet still have guts, and even a heart, at its core. Even in its gentler moments, like those in ‘One Line’, with piano and marimba, only seem calm because they have managed to smooth over for a while the urgency and unrest that lies beneath them.

There’s ‘Beautiful Feeling’, dark and moody, P J Harvey almost chanting at times, alongside Thom Yorke, his voice respectfully mirroring hers. But it’s really only ghosts mirroring ghosts and somehow you can’t entirely escape the feeling that P J Harvey is at her best, and her most honest, when she’s angry and disaffected, like she is with a vengeance in ‘In The Whores Hustle and the Hustlers Whore’ where she sings “speak to me of heroin and speed/just give me something I can believe”, almost as if she was coming forward to the footlights, giving you the moral of the album.

Thom Yorke comes to us full bore in ‘The Mess We’re In’, his voice sliding into his falsetto stratosphere as hers muses and reflects, hurt and bitter, around him – both of them, it seems, resigned and resolved to their forever crumbling worlds.

But this is P J Harvey’s album, not Thom Yorke’s, and her place here is in the limelight, and nowhere more so than in ‘Kamikaze’, surely the album’s wildest moment, where her voice screeches at heights almost too extreme for humans to hear, music that has become crazed and defiant only because it has been hurt just once too often.

And so, in ‘This is Love’, we don’t have a skerrick of tenderness but, instead, all the guts of the very best blues mixed with all the grit of the very best punk. This is love unromanticised, “my dirty little secret”, sordid, seductive.

The gears, if not the course, change for ‘Horse in My Dreams’ – music that is now mournful, a dirge, where a piano tolls its way through, grim and deathly, as Harvey’s voice, saturated with world weariness, drags itself from note to note, raising itself a notch only to have the gravity of its own torment yank it back down again.

Perhaps there a kind of bleak, begrudging resignation in the closing ‘We Float’ – just as there was in ‘The Mess We’re In’ – a steadiness in the beat, an almost learned helplessness in the words (“One day we’ll float/Take life as it comes”). But it’s all told to you by that stark, warn, troubled voice which, even in its bleakest, most defeated moments, you know is never really going to lay down and die.

Thom Yorke’s presence on three of this album’s 12 tracks is crucial, and adds just the right amount of ghostly chill to this harsh, harrowing music. But Stories from the City, Stories from the Sea is P J Harvey’s music and, even with someone of his stature holding her hand from time to time, these streets, smeared with all the grit and grime that those stories dump upon them, belong only to her.

Belated thanks to Marty W, who told me about five months ago what a fantastic album this is.

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