PJ Harvey resists interpretation. Every time you think you've succeeded in
clipping her dragonfly wings, she slips away, at once earthbound and
ghostly. She is studiously ambivalent, resolutely anti-modern
(anti-postmodern), whip-smart. And she knows how to come by artistic
power: by indulging in messy sensuality and dramatic mood-swings, by
nursing obsessiveness and extremism -- in short, by studiously ignoring
the professional advice of the well-healed therapeutic culture.
Her fifth album -- and first in three years -- is a dark, ominous
dreamscape. Those who found the psychic and aural landscapes of Rid of
and To Bring You My Love compelling will most likely feel the same way
about Is This Desire?, though warming up to it will probably take a bit
It's time well-spent, though. The first track, "Angelene," has the
feel of an old, dredged-up English folk song, but Harvey puts one of
her characteristic twists on it: "My first name is Angelene/ prettiest
mess you've ever seen." The quiet mood established here is shattered by the
following number, "The Sky Lit Up," a maelstrom of anxious drums,
high-pitched guitar and frantic vocals, all thunder and lightning. The
following number, "The Wind," begins as a whispered fairy tale and
features portions of "Planet of the Apes." The song builds around drums
that lurk darkly behind the vocals, then skips confidently forward,
propelled by guitar that is turgid, melodic and a little reminiscent of
"My Beautiful Leah," on the other hand, is almost physically painful,
grounded or sinking in ponderous static. "A Perfect Day Elise"
features a relentless and perfectly melded escalation of guitar,
keyboards and vocals. This is the first number with pop-song refrains. It
Then it's back to the murk; on "Catherine," Harvey's vocals are so
delicate, breathless and deliberate that they chillingly ensure the
murderousness expressed in her lyrics: "Til the light shines on me/ I
damn to hell every second you breathe." It's an anti-anthem of the
type Harvey is so good at.
Further reports on the weather of the female psyche follow,
accompanied by trippy drums and airy organ on "The Garden," with Harvey's
plaintive yet dissociative delivery of the line "there was trouble taking
place." It's a number with the cool atmosphere of film noir. The thudding,
buzzing, trilling lines of "Joy" are punctuated
intermittently by what sounds like bells ringing, drilling, banging on
pots and pans. It's all over the top, but the distinct textures here
keep it interesting, and the song comes to an abrupt end, mid-phrase,
like a book slammed shut ...
"The River" is plaintive, even maudlin; "The Girl So Sweet" is fast
and fuzzy: "I'd like to take you inside my head/ I'd like to take you
inside of me," sings Polly Jean, whooping and screeching over
percussive machine noises, the whir and ping of an industrial upset.
The pauses between each number begin to seem like a kind of white
space, a frame. It's easy to think of each of these songs as pictures
on a gallery wall, mug shots, perhaps, or pages from a book of lost
girls and goddesses. The regular alternation of hard/soft, slow/fast,
clear/fuzzy is pretty distracting at first, but with successive
listens, the album opens up and works together as a whole rather
than breaking apart into fragments, as often seems to happen. The
last cut, "Is This Desire?," is a quiet, blue one: "Is this desire?/
Enough, enough/ To lift us higher/ To lift above." Whether the
song's star-crossed lovers are after the release of sex or death or
some combination of the two isn't clear. But it doesn't have to be.
In Polly Jean Harvey's universe, ambiguity is power, as dangerous if not
more so than the harder, faster, unadulterated versions of lust and hate.