ISSUE #13 - 1999

PJ Harvey - Is This Desire?           Island

Call it The New Adult Contemporary: Tortoise, Tricky, Beastie Boys, Lauren Hill, Bjork, Beck, Portishead, Belle and Sebastian, Elliott Smith, Aphex Twin, Massive Attack, Ani DiFranco, Patti Smith, DJ Shadow, Fatboy Slim, Freakwater, Will Oldham, Beth Orton, Roni Size, etc., mixed "ironically" with Frank Sinatra, Bessie Smith, Tony Bennett, Billy Holiday, vintage "swing", Coltrane, whatever. Opium-smoker chic, a little electronica, a little "blues", a little pop, a little eccentricity, Gen-X, approaching-our-thirties burnout/nihilism, the last shreds of a generational sickly-sweet romanticism now turning into sour, melodramatic, noir mush. Whenever I go to a party, whenever I go to a restaurant, whenever I scan the CDs of a fellow aging twenty-something, I can be assured that I will either hear or see at least one CD by the above artists. PJ Harvey's record is the next perfect addition to the hipster New Adult Contemporary cannon, which is why I've been pleasantly surprised to see that it's been receiving mixed reviews in the media. After the failure of her last solo record, the morose and stupefying To Bring You My Love, it's entirely likely that most fans expected her to return to the more kinetic and cathartic style found on Rid Of Me, still her classic record and probably unlikely to be topped by her anytime soon.
   Being English, Harvey is naturally afflicted with a pop (as opposed to rock) ethos, and the musical athleticism of Rid Of Me complemented the softer, pop impulses of that record. Albini's stark/loud production and the mitigating influence of a live rhythm section conspire to keep Harvey's torch-song megalomania and unrepentant theatrics in check. One minute she's wailing like an exhibitionist/actress for no good goddamn reason at all and then the drums and guitars kick in and everything's all right, everything makes sense again. Perfect balance. Almost "metal" (but not quite that good, not that unhinged or rigorous). At her best, she sounds like a female Nick Cave, but suffused with her own punk/femme/dyke aesthetic. I'm sure that this is insulting to women everywhere who believe that Harvey sprung from the earth sui generis, wholly self-influenced and self-taught, but the time I spend tending to delicate PC sensibilities has dropped to zero, and if you think the truth hurts, well, you've come to the right place. PJ Harvey was worshipped because she supposedly represented the commercial surfacing of Lydia Lunch, an angry guitarist/singer/auteur/woman who could play with the boys. This is silly, however, because putting Harvey on the same playing field as, say, Sepultura, results in her getting run over like a tank. Harvey was interesting not because she could duke it out with Slayer, but because she was an androgynous freak not unlike Mick Jagger, Marylin Manson, David Bowie, etc. In other words, she wasn't The Great White Hope for hard-rocking women, so much as she was an interesting character who happened to be a woman who played hard rock. She combined pretty-baby wailing with hard-rock maneuvers to create an appealing androgynous weirdness that had it all over similar but failed attempts by such creeps as REM and the Lunachicks. Unlike Ani DiFranco, who's got that granola/liberal/rock-is-for-boys peevishness/pathos, Harvey wasn't afraid to get her hands dirty with hard music. Hard rock isn't simply a patriarchal conspiracy or modernist mind control trope planted in your head, it's a spiritual/physical catharsis, a musical athleticism that unites body and mind and elevates both to a higher plane in the process. Rock is a recognition of the body, of our physical, existential condition, of physical energy, physical vigor, health, power, autonomy. Rock is the pagan worship of strength, prowess, grace, agility and transcendence, and like all powerful ceremonies channels these primitive energies through deep, right-brain focus, creative intelligence, emotional excess, intellectual/ritualistic discipline and existential joy/angst. Rock, however, doesn't sell nearly as well as pop, so down the drain it usually goes.
   On her second record, To Bring You My Love, Harvey decides, predictably, that there's more glamour in being a diva than a musical athlete. Once more we're treated to the ghoulish concept of a disembodied voice floating in ethereal fashion above a murky stew of stiff electro-twaddle. Whereas before Harvey was The Man, so to speak, she now sounds like a fair maiden trapped and wailing in a dark castle tower. This could be a perfect analogy for her travails in the music industry, which is known for making artists go solo and electro simply for the sake of molding them into more easily identifiable and digestible packages. Rid of Me did quite well, however, so it's likely that she had the influence to release another rock record, had she wanted to. Which raises the always disturbing question of trend-following and marketing. By the time TBYML was released, grunge was already looking dated and electronica was looking to be the Next Big Thing, and it's entirely likely that the production on that record was calculated to coincide with the marketplace. This proved to be a rather short-sighted career decision, to say the least, as electronica tanked and hard rock/metal is still cresting (Deftones, Limp Bizkit, Korn, Orgy, Rob Zombie, Marylin Manson, Monster Magnet, Fear Factory, Rammstein, Soulfly, Tool, Metallica, etc., etc.). Furthermore, without the grounding/common sense/discipline derived from the physical labor of hard rock, Harvey sounds spoiled, lazy, arrogant, bored and cynical and lost. TBYML is all frosting and spray-on ennui ffom someone too lazy to plug in her guitar. If she can't be bothered to come up with a good riff, why should I listen to her angst? Her lack of urgency is my lack of interest, and furthermore, her automatic-pilot platitudes about love and sex and death lack any authority whatsoever. The beauty of rock music is that it proves your point and creates authority. It's one thing to say that one is angst-ridden and distressed, to croon away in by-the-numbers "disturbing" fashion, and it's another thing entirely to fucking prove it with dark, tense, loud, invigorating music. There's no arguing with music that delivers the goods in the same way that there's no arguing with a bat to the head. As with sports, it's one thing to talk to talk, but it's another to walk the walk. On Rid of Me, Harvey walks the walk, but on TBYML, she's all talk, all Little Miss Coasting On Our Laurels. TBYML is silly in the same way that one-man "bands" that traffic exclusively in synthetic production and canned dynamics (Ministry, Rob Zombie and NIN) are usually silly, in the sense that genuine, physical intensity has been replaced with theatrical, show-tune stage-angst. Apparently, Harvey feels that her persona alone is so compelling and powerful that she is entitled to croon over any dour electronic blurping. She is completely mistaken, and her flunkies have seriously led her astray. Harvey was admirable because she was like an Ironman triathlete. She had the conviction to turn her beliefs into music, into pure emotional power, into sweat and action. The emotional conviction on TBYML couldn't fuel a push-up, and Harvey's trilling sounds exhausted and decadent. Emotional maturity? Kiss my ass. Maturity doesn't consist of the pathetic romantic vision that has you jumping around in faux-liberal rebelliousness when you're twenty, and lying around in demure, retired, pining and cartoon-conservative style when you're thirty. True maturity bypasses that rebel/patriarch bullshit and consists of the recognition that life is pure energy that you can use and enjoy until the day you die. Blow shit up, and stay alive and interested and entertained, 'cause what the fuck else is there? Nada. Big Zero. Mom-and-dad cliches and bitterness. Perhaps you'd prefer the velvet couch and your smoking jacket and a cigar. Faux aristocratic decadence and Euro ennui and a little TBYML. Whatever. Harvey could've delivered a rock record that wasn't a repeat of Rid of Me, but she apparently decided that "artistic growth" had priority (i.e.: marketing concerns, along with the then-inescapable ideology that "rock is dead" and its practitioners idiots and losers and dinosaurs). She could've reversed this tide of boredom with her new record, but only went deeper into the cave, which is both good and bad.
   Harvey sounds a bit more engaged on Is this Desire?, but the most interesting tracks, "Catherine", "Electric Light" and "The Garden", all in a row, feature her in a Jarboe-channeling-Kate Bush mode that flips ennui into preciousness and dreamy pipesmoke. She sounds most sincere on these tracks, which sound like paeans to gothic madness, incest and death. Are we to understand Harvey as a kind of world-class cynic and nihilist (or, more likely, pot smoker/heroin addict?). Playing these songs in broad daylight will make you feel creepy and embarrassed, both for yourself and her, but you have to wonder if this is the final heart of darkness for Harvey. In her case, the bottom of the well overflows with narcissism, pretentiousness, self-absorption, compelling dark charm and rampant but rather middle-class melodrama. Her songs have an unmistakable early-U2 new-wave/goth idealism, as well as a late-U2 synth-craft feel, courtesy of Flood, who also produced a U2 album or two. "Joy", which one might regard as a ringer for an old industrial fan such as myself, attempts a mild Neubauten clang which sounds interesting the first time you play it, but then sounds rather tepid on subsequent spins. I don't play my Neubauten records any more either, for your information, but her appropriation feels faddish in an '80s-nostalgia sort of way. The rest of the record is wholly unremarkable and similar in feel to TBYML. "A Perfect Day Elise" and "No Girl So Sweet" attempt to mine her Rid of Me glory, but sound like cold, crafted shit without a powerful backing band, and. in fact, remind of Garbage more than anything else. You know: knowing/snotty/ingenue/femme-fatale/"angry" schtick over big, bloated dance beats. The album ends with "Is this Desire?", fittingly the dullest track on the record, but superficially a return to form due to its simple guitar/drums/vocals production. Too little too late, I say, and more faux-blues shit to boot. The best material remains the triumvirate listed above, three dark, brooding, nodded-out dreamscapes that remind me a bit of the Cure circa Faith/Pornography as redone by Tricky. Is this progress? All three tracks are better than anything on TBYML, almost as though she's decided to drop her obnoxiously pretentious blues/diva schtick and come out of the closet as a goth fan. Does anyone need this right now, in 1998? Is this necessary? Is this enjoyable? This is desire all right, pure subjective desire without action, desire not as a precursor to action, but as a precursor to a gloomy afternoon of dreamy introspection and fitful 2 PM sleep. The aesthetic at work also recalls early Siouxsie Sue, a similar product of the English middle class. The same suburban dreams and suburban madness, but without the rock influence of the Banshees. You can mock rock all you want, but this is the true lead-balloon-and-stuffed-trousers fakery. Harvey's dropped some of her Annie Lennox posing, but seems either incapable or unwilling to retake the mantle that she once owned. She was once a force to be
   reckoned with and now she's just another rich eccentric like Enya, holed up with an international cast of hipsters who, upon all evidence presented, believe in nothing but fashion. At one point Harvey commanded respect, but now she merely commands adoration or devotion. She's another jet-setting pop freak so consumed by the heavy burden of hipness that she can only produce feverish languor. Fuck that. I'm not trying to implement The Wide World of Rock, 'cause I've currently got platters by Plastikman, BurgerIInk and Photek in heavy rotation, and my eyes spin in constant circles fiom all the Glass-like repetition that I've ingested. Pop electronica, however, isn't trance and isn't good drum 'n bass, and as a vehicle for third-eye human expression is pretty limited, and furthermore has become as pretentious and lazy as current hip-hop. Can't come up with any compelling music (perhaps because you have no compelling emotions or experiences or ideas)? Why, just throw down that funky beat, put a few synth flourishes on top, add some nodded-out crooning and presto! Instant hipness! (for hip-hop, substitute "synth flourishes" for "loop the hook, homes"). Post-rock/pop electronica has turned into self-aggrandizing soul-rot that has simply run out of fuel, for the simple reason that its foundation consists merely of attitude, fashion and studied ennui. "Rock is dead" isn't exactly a platform of titanium, it's a reactionary pose. Hardcore "electronica", without vocals, has the compelling attributes of hypnotism, repetition and driving energy, and provides the perfect soundtrack to eating, smoking, drinking, running, fucking, driving and staring. Post-rock, in the form of mild pop experimentalism, however, is just warmed over new wave bereft of the benefits of both pure electronica and pure rock. Harvey had the strength to bring it all together on Rid of Me, merging physical passion and emotional angst, but somewhere along the line was convinced that her physical talents, her caterwauling and guitar riffs, were passe. Maybe she'll come back from the dead and maybe not, but the tentativeness of Is this Desire? answers its own question. Rid of Me is desire. Is this Desire? is a Dr. Frankenstein project propped up with twee trilling. Now she wants to pull an Ian Curtis/Syd Barrett/Pete Townshend-style detour into Certified English Eccentricity/Madness. Gross and predictable and as bad as any rock star I can name. In pure storybook fashion, though, she's poised for The Big Comeback, so we'll see. All she needs now is The Tragedy and she'll be ready. In short, I do not recommend this record unless you are a chronic dope-smoking piece of human furniture, fully trustfunded and crushed out on the angst of monetary success.
   -J. Marlowe

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