PJ Harvey's hedonistic sojourn to NYC spawned one of her finest albums.
There are many, many reasons to get excited about PJ Harvey, but her fifth album Stories From The City, Stories From The Sea is arguably her finest. The one that has long eluded vinyl-collectors thanks to its hefty eBay or Discogs pricetag is finally here.
The world changed forever the very day Stories From The City, Stories From The Sea won the coveted Mercury Prize... and not just for PJ Harvey. Even though she become the first woman to win the award, events earlier in the day all but overshadowed her win and the ceremony. They were in Washington D.C. and she and the band awoke to witness the flames directly opposite their hotel. What would soon become known 9/11 in history was happening right in front of their eyes and things would never be the same again.
"It’s been a very surreal day," she said, accepting the award from Jo Whiley over the phone. "This comes at a time when I’m feeling pretty stunned by everything. Obviously I’m absolutely shocked, this whole city is in shock. Myself and my band are involved in all that…It’s hard to take in.”
Polly Jean Harvey was already a rock mainstay when the century turned over a year earlier, and she was excited by New York City and developed deep affection for it during a six-month sojourn to the city that never sleeps. Combined tales of hedonistic nights with the coastal retreat of Poole in Dorset where the album was recorded inspired the album and helped Harvey concoct an enticing view of NYC through the cloudy lens of its nighttime antics. Still a year away from the release of The Strokes' first single, the post-punk revival had was bubbling on the streets beneath the towering skyscrapers of Manhattan and lurking in dive bars buried beneath the Brooklyn Bridge.
But Harvey insists that this isn't her "New York album" as songs were also written in London or while at home in Dorset. She set about recording the album across March and April, 2000 at Great Linford Manor in Milton Keynes, co-producing it with Rob Ellis and Mick Harvey formerly of The Bad Seeds with themes inspired by love in NYC creeping into its every facet. There are the gritty, shady stories ('The Whore's Hustle And The Hustler's Whore') as well as moments of euphoric beauty ('We Float').
"It's very different musically to the first couple of albums." she explains. "It's very melodic, and it's much rounder and fuller. The earlier albums were very black and white in some sense, very extreme. Melodically, this is much more sophisticated than those records. It kind of feels like a combination of every album I've made so far rolled into one.
"I wanted everything to sound as beautiful as possible. Having experimented with some dreadful sounds on [previous albums] Is This Desire? and To Bring You My Love - where I was really looking for dark, unsettling, nauseous-making sounds - Stories From The City... was the reaction. I thought, No, I want absolute beauty. I want this album to sing and fly and be full of reverb and lush layers of melody. I want it to be my beautiful, sumptuous, lovely piece of work."
Songs From The City.... finds Harvey at her intoxicating best with a combination of waifish melancholy and untamed power. Gone were the sparse and anaemic musings of 1998's Is This Desire the moment opener 'Big Exit' plays, stripping away any folksy varnish and trading it for a return to her elemental rock best served up with the basics - guitar, drums and bass.
Singles from the album were presented in the form of 'Good Fortune', 'A Place Called Home' and 'This Is Love', songs that were only "pop according to PJ Harvey, which is probably as un-pop as you can get according to most people's standards." Hardly pop and hardly the extent of highlights that adorn the album, her vocals are catalyst to keeping her unique. Her singing often recalls Chrissie Hyde, Patti Smith and Siouxsie Sioux, artists who, like Harvey, project a sexuality derived from - yet never bound by - rock's male sensibilities.
Perhaps it is a reflection of the ellipsis in New York’s music scene that, despite her six-month transatlantic trip, Radiohead frontman Thom Yorke was Harvey’s most prominent collab. He contributes prominent vocals in 'This Mess We're In' as well as backing vocals and keyboards on 'One Line' and 'Beautiful Feeling'.
"I'd long been interested in the idea of somebody else singing a whole song on a record of mine, to have a very different dimension brought in by somebody else's voice. It adds so much dynamic within the record."
In addition to her landmark Mercury Prize win in 2001, the album received acclaim from critics and fans and new followers alike. It was touted as a "magnificent, life-affirming opus" by NME and "the album of her career" by Rolling Stone. It earned her a BRIT Award nomination for Best Female Artist as well as two Grammy Award nominations for Best Rock Album and Best Female Rock Performance (for 'This Is Love'). In 2002, it was ranked #8 in Rolling Stone's list of 50 Essential Women In Rock Albums while Time named it one of the best 100 of all-time in 2006. It received oodles of accolades and a spot on several all-time best album lists further to the aforementioned, guaranteeing that PJ would follow it up by going in the opposite direction and “get back to the earthy, rootsy, more dirty side of things” with Uh Uh Her . . . which led her to slam the brakes and turn the car around with White Chalk . . . then carve out a completely different path with Let England Shake . . . which opened the door to socio-political songs and The Hope Six Demolition Project. The directional changes that followed have done nothing to diminish the value of Stories, whether PJ Harvey likes it or not. The experience allowed her to expand her songwriting range and explore the possibilities inherent in melody without damaging her artistic cred one bit.
“I felt like I got lost around that record," she confessed in an interview some time later. "I wanted to try writing lots of perfect pop songs. It’s great to set oneself projects, but they also have to ring true to your heart and soul. Pop music isn’t where my heart is at.”
PJ Harvey's Stories From The City, Stories From The Sea is Waxx Lyrical's March Record Of The Month. The pressing is faithful to the original recording and package, cutting by Jason Mitchell at Loud Mastering under the guidance of longtime PJ Harvey producer Head.