PJ Harvey is brave. While her comparatively happy 2000 album, Stories From the City, Stories From the Sea, found the singer dipping her toe into the mainstream, the forthcoming Uh Huh Her finds her scurrying back out.
And if that seems like a missed opportunity for Polly Jean Harvey to receive some overdue recognition for inspiring such musical progeny as the White Stripes, Uh Huh Her is a great listen nonetheless.
Raw and fearlessly unpolished, Uh Huh Her (June 8) is like a woman who wears the barest hint of makeup to look natural. It's produced to sound unproduced, with few sonic details or flourishes other than Harvey's voice and guitar.
There are, of course, other instruments (a tambourine on "The Pocket Knife," an accordion on "The End"), but they're overshadowed by Harvey. She shouts, wails and screeches amid the barrage of "Who the F---" and on the raucous "Cat on the Wall," but outside of those moments, her force is in her fragility and her determination to strip the music down to essentials and let her emotions resonate.
Where Stories found Harvey celebrating a love that made her feel immortal, Uh Huh Her is tempered by the seeming loss of that love. Harvey is aggressively private about her personal life, though there have been rumors and sightings of romances with singer Nick Cave and actor Vincent Gallo. Whatever the case, someone appears to have hurt her, and this sometimes angry and brooding album is the result.
There are things she remembers fondly — knowing there was someone she could count on (the bittersweet "You Come Through"), hearing that special song on the radio ("Cat on the Wall"), sharing fetishes (the dark and erotic "The Letter"). But those memories are now shadowed by others: being lied to ("The Life and Death of Mr. Badmouth") and "feeling burned" ("The Darker Days of Me & Him"). Once grandly romantic, Harvey now regrets loving too much ("Shame").
This is no pity party, though. Harvey's phrasing and nuanced delivery suggest that there's more to the story than she's telling — hints of malice and mischief lurk in the lyrics. There are subtle threats of violence permeating "The Pocket Knife" (about a bride-to-be who'll do anything not to make it to the church on time), which is sung in a childlike voice to enhance the menace. Accusations of madness abound as well; the charge that her lover was hearing voices is a motif (and maybe a form of revenge?).
Some of the tracks are just brief interludes: One consists simply of the cries of seagulls; another sounds like a snatch of folk song ("No Child of Mine"). Mostly, though, the minimalist Uh Huh Her, with its dark, rumbling guitars, is a meditation on romance, both the good and the bad. At the end, in the quietly linked closing numbers, "The Desperate Kingdom of Love" and "The Darker Days of Me & Him," Harvey makes clear that her rage, her sadness and her confusion are all things to which she's resigned. Despite everything, she seems to be saying she wants to give love another go.
Now that's bravery.