Now that Radiohead's Kid A has topped the pops, it's tempting to proclaim the long musical drought at an end; for one moment, at least, art rock has mounted the charge and proudly planted its flag, right into (Milli Va)Nelly's ski vest. Never mind that Kid A is only half of a great album (and half of a dreadful, affected, unlistenable album); the ascension of Thom Yorke and company to the top of the heap has to mean something, dunnit? Probably not, says a friend who's been in the music business since I was hooked on phonics; the word "anomaly" crops up often in conversation -- it's a freak accident, the confluence of hype and luck. I can hear my old friend Gina Arnold shouting, "We won! We won!" as she did the day the sun rose and revealed Nirvana sitting on top of the world, but who's "we" anymore, and what exactly did "we" "win," anyway? Radiohead went No. 1, and all I got was this lousy record. Besides, Radiohead soon enough gave way to Ja Rule and Creed and 3 Doors Down. Last week's promise is today's threat.
A far better use of Thom Yorke's mournful moan can be found on track seven of Polly Jean Harvey's latest, and best, album; the two duet like night and day, with Yorke carrying most of the load up the pretty little hill. "Can you hear the helicopters?" he sings (or whatever it is he does), while guitars and drums pump softly behind him like a heart kept alive on a busted pacemaker. "I'm in New York/No need for words now," he continues anyway, finally begging to make love to Polly Jean, who seems more than willing to oblige. (Indeed, Stories From the City, Stories From the Sea might best be titled Songs About Fucking, if only Big Black hadn't beaten her to the punch.) The songs hint that the two are just strangers passing in the night; they won't see each other again once the sun rises over the city, which is just as well. "This mess we're in," they sing together, and it's the only time their voices meet; the two crawl out of bed and part ways forever, having realized nothing fucks up like fucking.
Harvey's fifth studio record (with her own band, drummer Rob Ellis and ex-Bad Seeds bassist Mick Harvey, in tow) doesn't stray far from the themes of its predecessors: She's all about the hot and wet, the sweet and the sweaty and the sticky. But there's poetry to her grunting this time around; she's past threatening to rub it 'til it bleeds and begging you to hear her long snake moan. Harvey's all but washed the blues (and reds) from her repertoire; she's no longer John Lee Hooker in sequins, howling and rasping and gasping 'til her voice becomes shards of broken glass. If this is indeed a record about the way-ups and low-downs of a love affair (she might well be the "Kamikaze," crashing into a lover 'til they both wind up in flames), at least Harvey seems satisfied with examining the wreckage.
She's never sounded lovelier or, gasp, more contented, and the music (more often pretty that pungent) fits her mood: "Baby, baby/I'm immortal when I'm with you," she sings at the beginning, and even after all the shit that happens in between ("Good Fortune," "The Whores Hustle and the Hustlers Whore," "The Mess We're In," "Kamikaze," "This Is Love"), she still can't end the disc on a downer. "You carried all my hopes 'til something broke inside, but now we'll float/Take life as it comes," she sings, drawing out the "we'll" until it sounds like a gust of wind in winter. She's never recorded a song more poignant or more lovely; it's the perfect bit of melancholia -- sad enough to make you cry, but optimistic enough to let in just enough light.
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There's but a single stumble on the record ("Good Fortune," the first time Harvey's ever actually earned the Patti Smith comparison and, one hopes, the last); otherwise, it's a perfect record, beautiful and thrilling and touching and tragic -- ya know, like any relationship. "Do you remember the first kiss?" she wonders on the song "One Line" (which sounds like a tender reworking of "Rid of Me"), before comparing the moment to "stars shooting across the sky/To come to such a place as this/You never left my mind." You're swept up in the first blush of romance and with Harvey's desire to, finally, mix in a little love with wanton lust (though no one said this is the stuff of autobiography, as all singer-songwriters are merely writers and actors and, honestly, nothing more). She craves a "Beautiful Feeling" (a haunting, devastating song, with male voices ooohing in the background like a spectral choir) -- "a smile from San Diego," she whispers, this woman from a grimy English town conjuring the name of the sunniest American city she can think of. But it doesn't last long: "All around me people bleed," she reckons, wanting out of one relationship 'til she finds herself in another. "How could that happen again? Where the fuck was I looking?" she'll ask later on, and keep asking it one way or another. It's her job.