"Is This Desire" -- or just bad performance art?

In her first release in three years, Polly Jean Harvey offers sops to a self-consciously hip underground.

Published September 30, 1998 5:53PM (EDT)

For a decade that has been so liberating, and so financially remunerative, for so
many unusual artists, the '90s have been stressful as well. The post-"Nevermind" era opened up radio -- and, to a degree not seen since the 1960s, listeners' ears -- to a panoply of sound from visionary sinners and scalawags, all with muses impressively unconcerned with Mammon. In rock's newly renewed promise of personal expression they found a place, and their fans were rewarded with a dizzying variety of music, including a reinvigoration of guitar rock (Nirvana and Pearl Jam), new landmarks in female trouble (Liz Phair and Polly Harvey), all manner of pop avant-gardism (Beck and the Beastie Boys) and a new and impressively extreme array of the increasingly harsh sounds with which teens perennially irritate their parents.

Perhaps inevitably, the most conflicted of this era found
their paradoxical success a new cross to bear; to varying extents they
felt it necessary to mark their art with protestations of purity -- to
this listener the key source of the flaws in the work of Nirvana,
Harvey, Sinead O'Connor, Phair and Pearl Jam. Each is a marvelous,
sometimes exhilarating artist; but each requires ideological cartwheels to get to it. To cite just two examples, there's the ludicrous harshness of some of Nirvana's "In Utero" songs and the
sonic bizzarrities and stridency that characterize Harvey's "Rid of Me."
(Both records, remember, were high-pressure follow-ups to unexpectedly
acclaimed albums -- and both, significantly, were produced by
self-appointed indie puritan Steve Albini.) The urge is understandable
to all of us dismayed by the record industry's steady and implacable
debauching of generations of rock stars; and there are of course scores
of minor artists whose work would benefit from such concerns. But the
operative word there is "minor"; when the artists are major, such
moves seem petty.

Polly Jean Harvey -- whom we're supposed to consider distinct from her
group, PJ Harvey -- has aspired, over a career of seven years and three
key albums, to marry a dark, transgressive lyricism with an avant-garde
musical expressionism. She's succeeded as perhaps no other artist in
rock's history. Musically, Harvey shares the dark, clanking visions of Tom Waits' latter-day work, though she has refused to banish elements of beauty and grandeur to the extent Waits has.
Thematically, however, Harvey stands virtually alone. There is a sexual
undertone to her work of an implacability unheard since the heyday of the
blues. I'm not talking about the hip polymorphous perversity of the
demimonde; that's far too celebratory for Harvey. Rather, she's fixated
on limning the relations between mutually horrified blood-engorged life
forms -- romance, to you and me. Her brutal debut, "Dry," began a
career that culminated in "To Bring You My Love," a genderfucked miasma
of unbridled desire and wasted obsession, an audacious concoction that
took both elemental blues and modern anomie on their own terms and held
its own.

Even as she achieved this remarkable plateau, Harvey retrenched. In the
three years since, she's done sculpture and appeared in a forthcoming
Hal Hartley film; she's also released a collaborative album with
guitarist and producer John Parrish and worked with artists like Tricky.
It's plain that Harvey is restless and unmoored, desirous of challenging
both herself and her audience. The trouble is that this desire can
sometimes take one to experimentation just for the sake of it, and
to contrariness just as a means of staying out of expectation's way. Which
brings us to Harvey's first new album in three years, "Is This Desire?"

It is neither a sequel to "To Bring You My Love" nor a jump beyond it;
instead, as if to atone for the album's success, Harvey offers little
but art-rock posturing and sops to a self-consciously hip underground.
Too much of "Is This Desire?" is just unpleasant to listen to. (Whatever
possesses rock stars to think that ululating over a monotonous rhythmic
background is transgressive, much less interesting?) I think on "Joy,"
the most offensive of these tracks, we're supposed to be bowled over by
the sheer intensity of the construction: a throbbing synthesizer sound
and an abstract rhythm track, with Harvey wildly proffering a strained,
vaguely ominous recitation on top. But it just sounds like bad performance art.

One trait even the more alluring songs on the album share is an internal
drabness; they don't sound alike, but the feel of each one is
dismayingly unchanging, with verses and choruses left behind in service
of each song's droning sameness. You remember the tracks not as songs or
as about something, but by their most noticeable musical bit of foofaraw:
"the one with the buzzing bass track" ("The Wind"); or "the one with the
doubled falsetto voices" ("Electric Light"). (Even a more compelling song
like "The River" comes to mind as "the one with the pretty melody
repeated over and over again.") Sound is all that these songs are about:
They all start up and then sort of drift off or just stop. I suppose
this is what "post-rock" is, but I say it's spinach and I say the hell with it.

The biblical allusions and moral concerns on "To Bring You My Love" now
take the form of successive lyrical lines starting with the word "and."
("And he was singing a sad love song/And he was praying for his life .../And he was looking at his songbird/And he's looking at his wings.")
It gets old fast. Harvey's singing, too, is less interesting here. Now it's
all whispers and falsettos, growls and moans. Self-conscious rockers
like Harvey distrust straightforward singing because they're afraid that
honestly imparted emotions will fade in the face of the pop world's
mindless repetition. (A bedeviled Kurt Cobain might have refused to play
"Smells Like Teen Spirit" in concert for just this reason.) I take their
point, but such philosophical reductiveness would keep most artists in
the garage.

There are two major songs here: The opening track, "Angeline,"
once it gets past a distracting reference to a J.D. Salinger short
story, turns into a powerhouse, a stunning statement of separation and
regret. And the unrelenting "A Perfect Day Elise," the first single,
deigns to provide listeners with verses and a chorus and an example
of more coherent sound experimentation -- like the way the keyboard
treatments intensify the guitar attack rather than just call attention
to themselves, as they do on other tracks -- that in turn provides a
worthy base for Harvey's astonishing vocals.

"To Bring You My Love" was an epic, allusive, carnal and hugely
ambitious work; it was almost universally critically acclaimed, sold a
lot given the extremities of its aural assault and sparked a corrosive
and celebrated world concert tour. But let's put that in perspective; PJ
Harvey is not a household name, nor is its namesake a multiplatinum
star. In this context -- and particularly in contrast to "To Bring You
My Love's" towering force -- "Is This Desire?" seems more timid than
daring. The challenge that great artists took back in the '60s -- the
only age whose experimentation and diversity could match our own -- was
to bring their audience along with them on a dance of discovery and
meaning. The excesses and indulgences (not to mention the human
casualties) that came along shouldn't be dismissed, of course. But when
an artist as undeniable as Harvey lacks vision on that scale, marginalization becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

By Bill Wyman

Bill Wyman is the former arts editor of Salon and National Public Radio.

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