The Sadeian Woman

Perfect wallowing music ...

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

Me

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

longer.

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

Massive Attack.

"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

shimmers.

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.