Stories from the City, Stories from the Sea (Island Records)
Considered dangerously soft and unacceptably “pop” by some, P. J. Harvey’s Stories from the City, Stories from the Sea strikes me as her richest and most expressive record until the more recent and surely career-defining Let England Shake (2011). Perhaps whether you like it or not will depend on your reaction to the photograph of Harvey on the cover: an elegant young woman in a black dress and gold lamé shoulder bag turns to the camera with a half smile as she prepares to cross a Manhattan street swirling with light and color. Life isn’t so bad, maybe, and it feels rather nice to be stepping out for the night as a mature, self-confident, fully functioning adult.
It was my unsettling experience to acquire Stories from the City just before September 11, 2001. (The album had been recorded the year before.) Life, in the weeks after that date, felt very bad indeed, and it still mystifies me that anyone could disdain a record that seemed to me so weirdly and horribly prophetic of exactly what we were living through in New York. Rage, fear, and aggression had always been a big part of Harvey’s tonal register—too much so if, like me, you would have preferred a little less noise and a little more music in certain places on her first four records. I’ll never fully know whether the sonic aggression of Stories from the City represented a refinement of Harvey’s craft or whether it simply gave me what I needed to hear: someone calling to me from a place of similar anguish and fright. Not that Stories from the City was lacking in moments of love and lyricism. The amazing thing was that it encompassed both polarities. At once soothing and horrifying, it became for me the soundtrack of grief and hope for my wounded city and country. Actually, it could have been the soundtrack for a lot of beleaguered places in the world. Even in the worst of times, people do what they’ve always done: they find whatever love and meaning they can amid the wreckage. They get on with their lives. If they’re like me, they might even spend a lot of time listening to a rock and roll record that they can’t get out of their heads.
Even if I had wanted to—and I sometimes did—I sure couldn’t get the opening song, “Big Exit,” out of my head. Half apocalypse, half love letter, it begins with fearful, childlike half-sentences shouted over one pounding, relentless chord. “I’m scared baby / I wanna run / This world’s crazy / Give me the gun”: not much catharsis in those words, but then Harvey lifts her shivery soprano into its highest register, the chord finally shifts, a bass and keyboard fill out the arrangement, and suddenly the song becomes a blissed out hymn of love. (“Baby baby / Ain’t it true / I’m immortal / When I’m with you.”) On it goes, the ferocity alternating with lyricism in interlocking verses. There’s no resolution here. This is a world where murderous insanity and destruction lie down with erotic longing and fulfillment, which is to say, our world and no other.
There’s a lot of clanging, banging, and hollering on “Big Exit,” as there is on much of the album. Sometimes a primal howl is an entirely appropriate response to the horrors of the world; a little Dionysian rage every now and then soothes the soul. Rock and roll tends to be better at this sort of exorcism than more rarefied forms of culture. “The Whores Hustle and the Hustles Whore“ (no niceties of punctuation here) is another needful exercise in controlled frenzy. I don’t really know what this one’s “about,” yet it conveys a massive sense of outrage even with its somewhat underdeveloped lyrics. And yet those lyrics—here’s the trick of it—have considerable power when conjoined to the vocal whoops, the fuzz bass, the feedback, the dampened strings exploding into power chords that distinguish the song. And nothing could be more articulate of rage and grief than the fierce, unearthly keening with which Harvey brings it all to a close.
“The city’s ripped right to the core,” she wails on “The Whores Hustle” in another uncanny reminder of what we New Yorkers were living through in the weeks after September 11. Yet I was also living through the final chapters of a domestic life that still carried the weight of remembered tenderness and desire. As if all the odd phrases throughout the album about helicopters and skyscrapers and war zones and kamikazes didn’t resonate enough, I was also confronted with a version of my younger self. From the second song on, it was apparent that Stories from the City was, among other things, an Englishwoman’s love letter to New York, O my city, which had once upon a time opened me up to life and love and awareness. The lovingly evoked geography of Brooklyn and Chinatown and the East River, not to mention Harvey’s palpable delight in New York’s beauty and expansiveness, assuaged some of the feelings of dread that the album simultaneously evoked. Part of the catharsis, for me, was the evocation of happiness and comfort associated with New York in such songs as “Good Fortune” and “You Said Something.” What’s it like to be young and falling in love in (not to mention with) New York? Well, it happened to me once too, and to paraphrase a line that Harvey sings in the former song, some things are “too beautiful / To put into words.” Nonetheless, her propulsively strummed guitar and the ringing, vibraphone-like touches on the keyboard help to put the idea across. “You Said Something” is slightly less euphoric, but it conveys its sense of discovery and potentiality through much the same means: Harvey’s big, open-chorded rhythm guitar, the flexible accompaniment of her drummer and bassist, Rob Ellis and Mick Harvey, some keyboards to add a little color, and most of all Harvey’s voice: Low and throaty, piercing and precise, or perfectly calibrated somewhere in between. My favorite moment of romantic reverie, however, comes in the surging, radio friendly rocker “This Is Love,” when Harvey sings, “I can’t believe life’s so complex / When I just wanna sit here and watch you undress.” It seems to me the best of a whole lifetime can be read into those simple lines: mine.
As life was just then reminding me, there’s no love without loss, and I expect that life had reminded P. J. Harvey of very much the same thing, if the moody, elliptical breakup song, “This Mess We’re In,” is any indication. Thom Yorke, the angel-voiced tenor from Radiohead, sings the lead vocal, with Harvey providing a spoken line reading in counterpart and joining him on the majestic choruses. Speaking of something too beautiful to put into words, I can’t hope to describe what makes this undemonstrative, three-and-a-half minute ballad so haunting. Is it the metronomic clack of the percussion? The little filigrees on piano that fill up some of the breathing spaces? Yorke’s spiraling vocal ascents? That tragic little “oh” that Harvey emits just before the last chorus? Or is it something else entirely—namely, what we bring from our lives into the created work of art? I can’t sing, compose, or play the guitar like P. J. Harvey, but neither Stories from the City, Stories from the Sea, nor any other record or book or poem or painting would communicate anything to me if I weren’t bringing something just as vital to the interchange as well. Like any beautiful piece of music, “This Mess We’re In” is to be experienced before it is analyzed, and the analysis can add a great deal to our understanding and appreciation. Yet that’s not really why we listen, is it? We listen to P. J. Harvey to get what all the best rock and roll music has always given us: Your life, my life, and all our lives played back to us with drums and electric guitars.