Please Release Me
Polly Jean Harvey is a tease. She knows what we want from her--what we expect--and she knows exactly how long she can toy with us before she has to deliver. When she does, the listener is jolted by both the thrill of irrational desire and the terror of becoming the object of that desire. It's an effect she lands with all the subtlety of a slasher leaping out from behind the door in a horror flick. Yet the opening track of each PJ Harvey album has delayed that catharsis a bit more. First came the immediacy of "Oh My Lover," next, the subdued-jitters-cum-merciless-explosions of "Rid of Me," and finally the stalking menace of "To Bring You My Love"--which swelled until her voice leapt that climactic octave into its gloating vibrato.
So when the lead cut on Is This Desire? (Island) opens with a gentle acoustic strum, we know better than to be lulled, right? But like its title character, "Angelene" is the "prettiest mess you've ever seen," and the damn thing just keeps getting prettier. Pianos tinkle into place. Cymbals crash with the steady calm of distant tides. "Come to me," Harvey moons to that unknown man "who will collect my soul," her lips half parted with the passive sigh of a thousand Cinderellas cooing over the pop airwaves--except the song's been decorated with the meticulous taste of Harvey's technoid producers/accomplices Flood and Head. The drama is all in the texture, the ebb and swell of the arrangement. Is this desire? Or is it just art rock?
Yes, on both counts. And while her desires are consistently thwarted, her art rock impulses are rendered with uncommon agility. We should've known Polly Jean wouldn't be the same after she stumbled across Leiber and Stoller's "Is That All There Is?" while recording Dance Hall at Louse Point, her arty side-collaboration with guitarist John Parish. In the original, Peggy Lee's litany of vaulted expectations and inevitable disappointments (neither a fire that destroys her house, the garish spectacle of a circus, nor a broken heart impresses her as significant events) spins into Brecht-Weill music-hall decadence. But Harvey won't embrace such jaded pleasure--her flat reading drove the chorus ("If that's all there is, then let's keep dancing") a level deeper into despair.
Picking up on this futility of longing, Is This Desire? unfolds like a collection of short stories, each purporting to define a human life in a moment of bleak revelation. Pop culture is neurotically delusional with regard to this desire, centered as it is on the faith that there is an Other out there who, as Tom Cruise once explained, completes you. Until now, Harvey got off on that neurosis, on her ability to dramatize its insanity in a way that those who doggedly continue to equate sex with pleasure could understand. Her critical reviews may have read like midterm explications of Cixous's "The Laugh of the Medusa," but she understood the need for climax--Jerry Lee kicking home the final chorus of "Whole Lotta Shakin' Goin' On."
But that knowledge has left her feeling a bit grimy, and her new obsession is with exposing the often quiet pathos of those who seek permanence in the act that Johnny Rotten disparaged as "30 seconds of squelching noises." These characters wallow in sin (read: sex) without any transgressive glee. Their desires may be the same as those of Celine Dion fans--huge swooping gusts of transcendent passion driven to heights more Wuthering than Kate Bush sprinting uphill toward orgasm. But Polly's princes never come, or if they do, they wind up like the loser of "A Perfect Day Elise," who glimpses completion in a grubby one-night stand and is haunted forevermore by his inability to recapture that moment. Turns out that Angelene is one of the fortunate ones, still able to mistake the chimera of romantic longing for genuine hope.
Harvey knows that music can create structures that recapitulate desire; her music explores tension, anticipation, release. So she sculpts electronic patterns that are as knotty and wary of resolution as her lyrics. Is This Desire? is literally hard to hear, consistently muffled beneath a layer of aural fuzz, a soundscape where treble is as fleeting as joy. Yet for the title track--the final track--she trudges back to the folk blues she's always debased so brilliantly to give her gestures earthy resonance. Two scared prospective lovers gaze at each other with hopeful desperation. As they draw close, there's a swelling of organs (no, no--in the music). Then the guitar doubles the pace of its slide. Harvey wonders if this will be "Enough enough/To lift us higher/To life above" as the chorus wisps into a tiny post-orgasm sigh that trails off into silence. And when the music's over, our lovers roll to either side and ask themselves, "Is that all there is?"
PJ Harvey plays First Avenue Tuesday, October 27; 338-8388.
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