When thinking about entertainment genres that could have a setting, what comes to mind? Books, surely; movies, absolutely. Music? Not usually. But that’s just one of the many innovative devices employed by PJ Harvey on her latest album, Stories from the City, Stories from the Sea.
PJ Harvey, now a solo artist, originally began making music with the PJ Harvey trio in 1991, with their first album, Dry, released in 1992. The album received worldwide praise and critical acclaim. After one more album, Harvey split from the trio, deciding that she wanted more control over her music, and that she didn’t want to organize her songs around a band.
On Stories…, her third solo album, Polly Jean Harvey veers powerfully from the brash sexuality of her earlier work. The album instead focuses on finding love, safety, and sanity in an insane city, in this case, New York. It serves as the backdrop for Harvey’s search, in which she embarks on a singing tour of two of the five boroughs.
Harvey’s powerful, beautiful voice without a doubt takes center stage on the album. Striking vibrato on songs such as “Good Fortune” and the layering of three vocal tracks on “A Place Called Home” really showcase her ability as a singer.
While her vocals soar at times, and are quiet at others, they are always backed by guitars, keyboards, and drums that blend together, allowing her voice to receive the recognition that it deserves.
Her lyrics are also significant. While they seem trite at first, more in-depth listening reflects very thoughtful, intense ideas. The listener is mystified by songs such as “You Said Something,” which depicts a conversation with a lover, but fails to provide any answers. This is a great example of an artist sharing her intimate thoughts, while still maintaining her privacy.
The album flows quite well. It almost seems as if it takes place in two distinct acts, similar to a play. The album opens with a bang, a song ironically titled “Big Exit.” A strong guitar riff and steady drum rhythm back Harvey’s screaming voice, which rises during the verses, only to quickly turn angelic as the chorus opens up.
The first act closes with two softer songs, before the curtain reopens with “The Whores Hustle and the Hustlers Whore,” a commentary on the greed, lust, and evil present in the city.
The next song introduces a new character to the scene, Thom Yorke, lead singer of Radiohead who does all of the vocals on “The Mess We’re In.” The result is a very pleasant collaboration between the two artists.
The album again reaches a peak with “Kamikaze,” showcasing terrific singing, and then calms down in the last three songs.
Overall, the album is a good blend of immense vocals, subdued instrumentals, and thought-provoking lyrics. It’s refreshing to hear from an artist who plays her own instruments, writes her own songs, and really puts her heart, soul, and full emotional range into an album that is listenable all the way through.
Archived article by Merri Coleman