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.