Monday, October 09, 2006

You're Not Rid of Us

Today is my birthday, so «clink» here's to 29 terrific years and, with any luck, at least that many more to come. Still, as readers might remember, my own birthday is totally the B-side event on October 9, since it's also the birthday of the single living artist who most inspires me. PJ Harvey turns 37 today, marking another apt occasion for me to ponder, How has this woman become more important to me than any single personality in the medium I love, and how has she done it within another medium that I only casually enjoy? Music, in my life, is what movies are in many other people's: what I want and expect from music is a good time, an interesting surface, an appealing or suggestive lyric, a catchy hook, a danceable beat, a repeatable pleasure. Already, this feels like plenty to ask, but I don't press into any of it, or crave the history or the minutiae, or desire any higher-brow education. I'm just fundamentally uncurious about things like chord progressions and time signatures, and live performances hold no magic for me; I'd rather see a bad movie or read a mediocre book than see an excellent band or check out a new performer. Unless it's PJ. She's the apex, the omega, the godhead. I parse her lyrics and her instrumentations, follow her musical quotations, seek out her influences and recommendations. The dozens of personas, the confounding of genres, the unclassifiable erotics, the widely spanning moods from aggression to semi-consciousness... all of it amazes and rewards me, at the level of the best movies. PJ's albums even feel like great movies, or certain kinds of great literature. If you don't believe me, buy yourself a present for our birthday and find out. Until PJ's Peel Sessions debuts in two weeks (a heavenly notion, but only in the UK???), you have eight primary options:

Dry (1992)
Standout Tracks: "O Stella" and "Victory" are energetic blues-rock, but "Dress" and "Sheela-Na-Gig" are wittier and more unique, and the harsh, complicated strings on "Plants and Rags" give the best sense of where Polly Jean will head as a solo artist. "Water" is fine here but will be considerbly improved by slower, more patient performances in future concerts and "live" bootlegs.
Movie Analogy: Spanking the Monkey, for its brazen rookie irreverence, zesty writing, flagrant provocations, and palpable melancholy.

Rid of Me (1993)
Standout Tracks: The gathering menace of "Rid of Me," coiling up to its final crazy plea; the stuttering rhythms and heavy guitar of "Missed"; the braggadoccio of "50ft. Queenie" and "Man-Size Sextet"; the priceless indictments of inadequate partners on "Me-Jane" and "Dry"; giving good Dylan on "Highway '61 Revisited."
Movie Analogy: Requiem for a Dream, because her emotional force, savvy writing, and musical nuance get a little pummeled, honestly, by the oppressive production. An unforgettable experience that's nonetheless a bit over-the-top.

4-Track Demos (1993)
Standout Tracks: The bare-bones takes on "Rid of Me," "50ft. Queenie," and "Yuri-G" reveal more of the humor, irony, and ambiguity that were sacrificed to pure power on Rid of Me; the same scaling back improves "Hook" and "Legs" immeasurably, recasting each song as a bold assemblage of unlikely parts. Tracks like "Reeling," the comically annoyed "M-Bike," and the evocative "Driving" are so bracingly spare that one is glad she never took them into a real studio.
Movie Analogy: Persona, because PJ opts for solitude, self-determination, and relative quiet. In this envelope of privacy, she strips her art down to what feels like a raw essence—though of course this "essence" is also an effect of fierce, calibrated artifice. A nervy self-deconstruction that also offers a generous window into a great artist's creative process.

To Bring You My Love (1995)
Standout Tracks: The high-octane arousal of "Meet Ze Monsta" straight into the lip-licking nocturnal prowl of "Working for the Man" is the greatest song juxtaposition in the PJ canon; the songs are so taut, sure, and hot with feeling, carrying her from guitar-rock to soundboard experiments literally without missing a beat. On the flip side of the album is the bizarre and bottomless "I Think I'm a Mother," conveying a major psychic break through uncomfortably inscrutable lyrics, deep and distant percussion, and a lowest-possible-register croak. Those are my favorites, but with the possible exception of "Teclo" (a little long) and "Send His Love to Me" (a little on-the-nose), this is kind of a peerless song-set. When "C'Mon Billy" and "Long Snake Moan" are only the sixth or seventh or eighth best songs on your album, you've got a major work on your hands.
Movie Analogy: The Piano, because PJ pumps the blood and the force back into elemental images of water, bush, trek, and wilderness; because the darkly married instruments are indispensable to the narratives she tells and personas she adopts; because she withholds and expresses in tantalizing balance; because the parodic exaggeration of sex, gender, and desire actually serve to denaturalize them and to re-plot their courses, within these songs as well as on future albums.

Dance Hall at Louse Point (1996)
Standout Tracks: After a long instrumental lead-in, "Rope Bridge Crossing" offers a simple, unshowy lyric and a gently forlorn vocal track. "Civil War Correspondent" is a great character piece and an astonishing snapshot of disillusionment, and "That Was My Veil" is one of PJ's most purely beautiful songs, no matter how bruised the emotions it describes.
Movie Analogy: The Mystery of Picasso, because by relieving herself of songwriting duties, PJ calls new attention to her increasingly varied, resonant, and confident vocals. A direct view of a well-established artist at work, though her chameleonic changes of perspective and style still serve to keep her at an elusive remove.

Is This Desire? (1998)
Standout Tracks: The sad, broody, electronically filtered landscape of this album inheres most powerfully in "Angelene," "The Garden," "Is This Desire?" and the haunting "Catherine," though the eruptions of energy in "The Sky Lit Up," "Joy," and "No Girl So Sweet" impart a helpful urgency to the set, and "The Wind" and "Electric Light" are interesting flirts with electronica.
Movie Analogy: Maybe Morvern Callar, because of the menagerie of solitary, sphinxlike women and the odd adjacency of neon textures and rustic scene descriptions—but this is actually the wrong question.
Literary Analogy: The Complete Stories of Flannery O'Connor, not just because of the restive blend of archetypal landscapes, upset psychologies, and quasi-religious images, but because PJ actually lifts characters and lyrical quotations straight out of "The River," "Good Country People," and other tales.

Stories from the City, Stories from the Sea (2000)
Standout Tracks: After all that electro burbling on the last album, Stories re-discovers PJ's bristling guitar roots in the opening duo of "Big Exit" and "Good Fortune" and the late-breaking gale of "This Is Love," but quieter, chamber-scale songs like "Beautiful Feeling" and "This Mess We're In" (with Thom Yorke) also show themselves to terrific advantage, and "You Said Something" is top-flight songwriting, matching Dylan at his own tricksy and rueful best.
Movie Analogy: New York, New York, because the album's shimmering surfaces impersonate elation and florid abundance, despite all the thrumming loneliness and wounded wisdom unifying the project. Top-volume set-pieces alternate with arresting solos, and big-city energy courses through all of it.

Uh Huh Her (2004)
Standout Tracks: "Who the Fuck?" resembles a perfect, razor-edged relic from the Rid of Me era of abrasive backtalk. "Shame" builds on the writ-large emotions of Stories from the City, Stories from the Sea; "It's You" and "The Letter" on the narrative aspirations and reverberating yearns of Is This Desire?; "Cat on a Wall" on the grungy pluck of Dry; and "The Slow Drug" on the vocal distortions and piano-wire tensions of 4-Track Demos.
Movie Analogy: Bad Education, because the overall effect is curiously circular, recycling previous idioms with more technically consummate execution but less sense of discovery and surprise. Plus, the whole thing peters out a bit at the end...though there's no denying PJ's emotional commitment to the project, and perhaps with the vantage of several years, Uh Huh Her will look less like a summary statement and more like an important pivot into new terrain. Exemplary B-sides like "97°," "The Falling," and "The Phone Song," many of them startling in a way that album-closers like "The Desperate Kingdom of Love" aren't, show that PJ is still sitting atop an imposing stock of brave, live, challenging, and sui generis material.

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19 Comments:

Blogger JavierAG said...

A great happy birthday to you, and I thank you for this:

"Music, in my life, is what movies are in many other people's: what I want and expect from music is a good time, an interesting surface, an appealing or suggestive lyric, a catchy hook, a danceable beat, a repeatable pleasure"

Cos it makes me feel like I'm not alone!

8:47 AM, October 09, 2006  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Happy birthday, Nick!

A question/observation though:

You mention "Desperate Kingdom of Love " as being a weak album-closer. Uh-Huh Her actually end with "The Darker Days of Me and Him" which I agree is a bit weak. "DKoL" however is probably one of my all-time favorite songs of hers.

And by the way: been LOVING the Birth banners!

9:10 AM, October 09, 2006  
Blogger Dr. S said...

Happy birthday to you
happy birthday to you
happy birthday dear Nick!
happy birthday to you!!

Have an extraordinary day. I'm so glad you're around.

9:26 AM, October 09, 2006  
Blogger Nick Davis said...

@Javier and @the lovely Dr. S: Thanks to you both!!

@Anon: Thanks to you, too. As for "Desperate Kingdom," when I say "album closers," I meant all four of those final tracks on Uh Huh Her—of which "The Desperate Kingdom of Love" is the only one I might come around on in later years. As a set, I don't really get what they do for the album or for PJ. (As it happens, I'm not a fan of the opener, either, "The Life and Death of Mr. Badmouth." You?)

9:50 AM, October 09, 2006  
Blogger damion said...

Happy Birthday Nick!!!!!

You know we share love for PJ. And You know that you are my hero!

10:07 AM, October 09, 2006  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

No, not so much a fan of "Mr. Badmouth" either. The heart of the album, for me, is "Shame" though "Slow Drug."

PJH was on Letterman when th ealbum came out and performed "The Letter" while wearing these bright yellow latex gloves she had nicked from Bill Muray. Pretty funny.

Murray was promoting "Garfield" - not so funny.

11:07 AM, October 09, 2006  
Anonymous goatdog said...

Happy birthday to both of you! And thanks for a great intro to PJ. I absolutely love Stories from the City... ("Big Exit" is a staple on mix-discs I make), but for some reason I've never delved into her other stuff, even though she's exactly the kind of music I tend to listen to.

11:30 AM, October 09, 2006  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hippo Birdie 2 Ewe

12:00 PM, October 09, 2006  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Happy birthday, Nick! From what I've seen, from what I've been told, and from what I've experienced, you are an incredible, supremely intelligent, and utterly kind human being. I feel lucky to know you even through the internet, haha. I hope you have a wonderful day, and thank you for the PJ post: I will be downloading very soon!

2:27 PM, October 09, 2006  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

A very merry birthday, Nick!

2:33 PM, October 09, 2006  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

29! Wow, you're so much older than me! :D

Happy birthday. Have a great one.

4:39 PM, October 09, 2006  
Blogger findfinishfreedom said...

Happy Happy Birthday, Nick! I don't know much about PJ (duck!), but on this day News Headlines broadcast the official news that Tower Records is liquidating. I'm very sad indeed...but if there's a Tower in your 'hood, buy yourself a couple of DVDS wouldya! (I'm not a heartless carpetbagger...Remember gifting ourselves off the Office Max liquidation sale)... I still gotcha back, my dear... xoxo FFF

9:16 PM, October 09, 2006  
Blogger NATHANIEL R said...

mwah

9:23 PM, October 09, 2006  
Blogger Ali said...

The others that commented before me here have put it all so well that I don't think I can add much else. But Nick, as lame as it may sound, you have been a strong role model for me in the last year or so. I am so impressed at your passion for writing and teaching - you don't fit the stereotype of a bitter and jaded academic at all. ;) And believe me, I have encountered so many here on the Toronto campus...

Considering I will also be pursuing graduate studies in my field, I want to be as excited as you about my work. You manage to juggle so much - your courses, the blog, the reviews - that it amazes me.

I hope you had a fantastic day, and I look forward to many, many more years of reading what your genius brain produces.

10:12 PM, October 09, 2006  
Blogger Nick Davis said...

@Everybody: All of these birthday wishes were very very kind, and deeply appreciated!!

12:07 AM, October 10, 2006  
Blogger Kamikaze Camel said...

Happy birthday Nick! May you continue to wax lyrical on everything from Bring it On to Cremaster.

1:23 AM, October 10, 2006  
Blogger Dr. S said...

Yes, to what Ali says, and then some. Nick = supernova, not least because of his total kindness and decency. Those kids at Northwestern have got it good, baby!

2:41 AM, October 10, 2006  
Blogger par3182 said...

happy happy birthday, nick. sorry i'm a little late to the party but i'm travelling and interweb service is limited.

29 - so young, so cute, so accomplished; stop it before i hate you.

4:24 AM, October 11, 2006  
Blogger *Bat Girl* said...

A day too late, so a retroactive Happy Birthday to you!!

10:03 AM, October 11, 2006  

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