Could any musical marriage be more pathetic than a middle-aged Cure fan repledging her troth to Goth? Teeming with glassy-eyed, ne'er-grow-old devotees, rock's most sullen subgenre has always resurrected its teen spirits like a Peter Pan factory in the Village of the Damned. Somewhere around the age of 20, when misery no longer loves company, aging Joy Division adepts are replaced by younger comrades in a rotation as constant and consistent as that of a Disintegration record on a junior high brooder's stereo. Call it nostalgia, then, that wants to hold PJ Harvey to the ideal of a Marilyn Manson-Monroe--a timeless icon of voluptuous appetites whose visceral songcraft seduces fairly conventional older crowds while still shocking self-marginalized whippersnappers with its Polly-morphous sexuality and enticingly whispered promises: "You too can be this sad for the rest of your life."
Ever since critics were lulled by Dry's full banshee force way back in 1991, Harvey has been slithering her way in and out of the mainstream, going so far as to secure a minor radio hit with To Bring You My Love's "Down by the Water." This split-personality tumult peaked when Harvey suffered from an emotional breakdown in the years preceding 1998's chilling Is This Desire? Perhaps consequently, her anger has ebbed and her latest album, Stories From the City, Stories From the Sea (Island), actually confuses pop music and pop psychology (in "We Float," she even suggests that we should "take life as it comes"). Still, as Harvey's gravelly groveling and inexhaustible feedback gradually erode her altruism, she continues to prove that the transition from girl angst to feminist rant can still be played out, albeit with more versatility, through a minor-chord progression.
Recorded between jaunts in New York City (where she starred as a boozing Mary Magdalene in Hal Hartley's The Book of Life) and Harvey's home in Dorset, England, Stories vacillates sonically between urban guitar riffage and woozy submarine keyboards. The first three tracks kick off the concrete like a retort to her days of bygone bathos: Harvey name-checks various New York sites with a tambourine and an optimistic yowl that sounds disappointingly more like Grace Slick than Patti Smith. It's difficult to believe that the sarcastic Harvey is sincere in her claims of giddy "Good Fortune," especially as the edginess of "Kamikaze" and "The Whores Hustle and the Hustlers Whore" make for more convincing ballads, giving the androgynous greaser a chance to fuse vocal and instrumental anticipation into violent crescendos reminiscent of a more subtle My Bloody Valentine. The strongest songs here are scaled in a reptilian shift between land and water, tempering the scathing aural assault of New York with the lyrical sentimentality of the English countryside. "This Mess We're In" stands out as the perfect convergence between the two. Harvey sings of first kisses and shooting stars while a "bing" like the sound of incessantly opening supermarket doors disrupts Thom Yorke's soporific backing vocals, transforming it into a cruel mixture of lullaby and alarm clock. This slight discrepancy between melodrama and mean-spirited joke makes Harvey the mistress of music as emotional manipulation.
If you're feeling sinister, as Harvey does, chances are you've been frustrated in finding a musical outlet. Either you've been stuck in a time of adolescent unrest funneled through hypermasculine bands like Korn, or your adult dissatisfaction has eased into a dour dotage that finds little recourse outside of depression-era Morrissey memories. Stories allows Harvey to maintain an acerbic middle ground between the two. While it might not restore the raw energy of her earlier albums, it proves that Harvey can still plug her amp into electric youth, steadily crafting a mature British portrait of American Gothic.