Stories from the City, Stories from the Sea. It’s PJ Harvey’s New York album, though she insists it’s not. It’s her pop album, though, as she told Q magazine, it’s “probably as un-pop as you can get according to most people’s standards.” It won her her first Mercury Prize (she’s the only artist to have won two), though she wasn’t able to accept the award in person because she was in Washington, DC, and the ceremony took place in London on September 11, 2001.
Stories is also my least favorite PJ Harvey record, probably for the same reasons it’s a lot of people’s favorite: it’s calmer, prettier, smoother than the work that came before it. You can tell before you even press play just by looking at the album cover, which depicts her in a sleek black dress and shades, her hair utterly tamed by a straightener, chic leather bag hoisted over her shoulder as she jaywalks across a New York City street like she’s been doing it her whole life.
I’m not the only one who feels this way, incidentally. Stories “definitely did what I was trying to do,” Polly Jean herself told the Guardian, “which was to make an album full of great pop songs. But that’s not really where my heart is.”
That’s not to say I don’t like it. I do! Those opening chords like hitchhikers’ thumbs on “Big Exit”—I die! And, especially from the vantage point of 2013, the record is like a tunnel to another time, a Polaroid of New York in the moments just before everything changed forever.
Though it wasn’t released as a single, one of the standout tracks on the record is “This Mess We’re In,” Harvey’s duet with Radiohead front man and alt-rock deity Thom Yorke. “I wrote this song with his voice in mind,” Harvey told an interviewer, “hoping he’d say, ‘Yes, I’ll sing it,’ and that he’d find something in the lyrics. He said yes almost straight away.”
Yorke and Harvey narrate the song as a pair of lovers in an unspecified mess. They sit in New York and gaze at each other wordlessly and contemplate their doomed love and suffer, and it’s all terribly stylish and sexy. What really makes the song crackle, though, is the fact that neither one of them had sung this way about sex before—and haven’t really done so since.
Yorke’s favored approach to sex has been to never mention it because he’s too busy singing about the frantic, inexorable alienation inherent in postmodern society. (I mean, the mongrel cat in “Myxomatosis” manages to fit a brief fling in before getting “edited, fucked up, strangled, beaten up,” “buried in a burning black hole,” “skinned alive,” and so on and so forth. Good for him, I guess.) Meanwhile, Harvey has sung a lot about sex, but usually in the most aggressive, non-erotic ways possible. A brief highlight reel: “You leave me dry,” “You bend over, Casanova,” “I’ve lain with the devil,” “You snake, you crawled between my legs”—plus that whole “statues of women exposing their labia” thing. And that’s just off the top of my head.
In the year 2000, after we’d spent the last decade listening to the disillusionment and pain of two of the era’s definitive rock artists, hearing them collaborate on a straight-up love song was a genuine shock. It was a genuine shock to hear Thom Yorke say something as mundanely explicit as “Night and day, I dream of making love to you.” And we knew PJ Harvey could roar, holler, and banshee-shriek herself blue, but we had no idea she could produce that carnal little moan before the final chorus: “Sweat on my skin, oh, this mess we’re in.”
That above-board, accessible pop album turned out to have some surprises up its sleeve, after all.
The only problem with “This Mess We’re In”—from a PJ fan’s perspective, at least—is that there’s not enough PJ. In fact, on YouTube and lyrics sites, you’ll often see the artist listed as Thom Yorke (or even Radiohead) featuring PJ Harvey, instead of the other way around. But of course, Yorke can’t jet around on tour with her, so when she performs the song live, she does it on her own. And though we all love Thom Yorke’s otherworldly keening as dictated by Section 12C of the Alternative Radio Station Treaty of 1998, Harvey’s solo version is a revelation. It isn’t thrumming with sexual tension, and it’s no longer super catchy. It’s just…sad. It’s just understated and lovely and very sad.
If you’re not into understated melancholy, don’t worry. Next PJ Harvey Tuesday, we’ll return to the unsubtle drama of unrequited romance—a love song in true PJ Harvey style.