Is This Desire?
Because PJ Harvey's music changes so drastically from one album to the next, it's inevitable that with every new release you find yourself missing something from the previous CD (though I could have lived without the indulgence of 4-Track Demos). When she and her band plunged deep into the noisy abyss of sexual provocation with the 1993 sophomore album Rid of Me, the results were exciting, but it was hard not to miss the more controlled, song-oriented rock of her debut, Dry. When she re-emerged in 1995 with the haunting, muted despair of To Bring You My Love, the absence of her distinctively harsh slide-guitar work was a tough pill to swallow.
On Is This Desire?, Harvey thankfully rediscovers her love for the guitar (though it's no longer the focal point it once was), and she generally seems to have found light at the end of the emotional tunnel that made her last album so harrowing. With Harvey, it's always hard to tell, because she doesn't come out of the open-your-diary school of introspective songwriting. Rather, like David Bowie, she reveals herself through the more complex strategy of assuming different characters and speaking through them. Harvey was not the first artist to switch genders in song, but no one had ever found the liberating power she tapped into with the penis-boast machismo of a track like "Man Size." It's a power she finds again on new songs like "Catherine" and the murky, overdriven "My Beautiful Leah," twisting her voice until it defies gender and becomes the pure sound of erotic desperation.
The album opens with "Angelene," a folky tale of prostitution that borrows its melody from the verses of XTC's "Senses Working Overtime" (she makes this unlikely connection stronger by borrowing the line "Dear God" for her third verse). The song is loaded with sadness, but near the end Harvey interjects a trace of optimism: "I've heard there's joy untold/Lays open like a road in front of me."
This newfound ability to find sunlight in the darkest situations imbues the entire disc. On "The Sky Lit Up," Harvey sings with absolute conviction, "I'm lighter than I've ever been." The propulsive "A Perfect Day Elise" seems to define perfection as a surrender to obsession. Over music that is simultaneously funky and rhythmically unhinged, Harvey shows her usual flair for striking, sexually charged imagery: "God is the sweat running down his back." This song is about as good as Harvey gets, which is about as good as rock has been in the '90s.
With very few explicit references, the entire album carries with it the feel of Bible apocrypha, as though Harvey decided to fill in some missing chapters of the Old Testament and apply it to her own existential uncertainty. Her sense of melodrama--which would probably be insufferable coming from anyone else--works because her histrionics are always tied to her tough-minded equation of power with sex, and sex with violence.
The album only falters when the soundscapes fail to match Harvey's stories. The album's weakest track, "Joy," revisits the bassy, saturated organ drones of To Bring You My Love, yet winds up a sprawling mess. But it's a rare musical sin on an album brimming with so much hard-earned salvation.
The scope of Is This Desire?--with effective echoes of all her previous releases--makes it Harvey's most complete, though not quite her best (I'm still partial to Dry), work to date. It takes 12 songs to find out, but this CD's title is really only part of the question on Harvey's mind. "Is this desire/Enough to lift us higher?" she asks in the album-closing title track. On this album, at least, the answer is yes.
Goo Goo Dolls
Dizzy Up the Girl
As the years go on and a band grows as a unit, its music ultimately tends to change. Marilyn Manson recently took the turn from industrial goth-rocker to glam goddess in the span of an album. The Beastie Boys, on the other hand, have made more subtle changes, slowly ditching the punkish persona that dominated their last few albums for the old-school rap they helped create in the '80s. Then, somewhere in between, you have the Goo Goo Dolls.
As their transition from scrappy punks to VH1 darlings reached its peak this summer with the City of Angels megahit "Iris," it seemed that the once diehard rock trio from Buffalo pulled the last straw on their hard-core fans. On Dizzy Up the Girl, the band attempts to satisfy both wings of its muddled fan base with a hard-rock album chased with a commercial gloss applied by longtime Green Day producer Rob Cavallo.
Throughout the album, the Goo Goo Dolls fail to retain the punk credibility of their origins. Instead, they become a mockery of themselves to fans who followed them years before their songs were the soundtrack to every 12-year-old girl's secret crush.
Dizzy Up the Girl proves that the band has attempted to retain some of its intensity while giving the fans a more commercial sound chock-full of poppy hooks and smoothed-out edges. "Amigone," a three-minute synthetic rock extravaganza proves to be the perfect example of this approach, giving the listener hope as the first 30 seconds scream the Goo Goo Dolls of old.
Unfortunately, the rest of the song slowly turns into mush while singer Johnny Rzeznick attempts to salvage it with a strained, plaintive voice--only to end up sounding like he's battling a wicked case of constipation.
And on songs like "Extra Pale" and "January Friend," the Goo Goo Dolls superficially cling to their rough edge, while trying to remain as commercially attractive as possible.
Dizzy Up the Girl could very well be the breaking point where the band splits its audience in half. Whether this is a brave new career choice or the kiss of death for the Goo Goo Dolls remains to be seen.