Carnal Fission

Polly Jean Harvey goes home to the self-imposed alienation that all of us know so well

Before it blinks out in three years, the Hubble telescope may reveal more about the recently discovered "dark energy" that's accelerating the universe's expansion. But the sucking void will continue to grow larger and more lonesome. Meanwhile, psychiatrist Dr. Melfi just told Tony Soprano that depression is rage turned inward. Some of us abhor a vacuum; others need their space. And if we're to believe MILF Melfi, the angry alienate themselves.

The dark energy in PJ Harvey's constellations of sound has, after five proper albums, taken its most observable form. Uh Huh Her is as discrete—and ravishing—as her other works: the flower-from-a-sidewalk-crack Dry (1992); alt-shrapnel, stuck-on-rutting Rid of Me ('93); sultry, mythmaking To Bring You My Love ('95); club-cribbing Is This Desire? ('98); and, of course, 2000's revelatory, NYC-inspired tumble into love and the pop life, Stories From the City, Stories From the Sea. The new disc is also recognizable: It's a breakup album, as all save her last have been. Whether or not Harvey has found and lost men every couple of years since the first Gulf war (Vincent Gallo as of the second, rumor has it), we know she's been fucking and fighting, probably in equal measures, and maybe in the same moments. It can't all be makeup sex.

If Stories From the City captured afterglow, with all its flitting hopes and still-wet stains, Uh Huh Her dresses a burn all the more stinging for the gentle touch preceding it. The album teeters poetically between rage and depression, though Harvey would have no use for Dr. Melfi's formulation. In "The Darker Days of Me & Him" she speak-sings a wish list over bristly thatches of acoustic guitar: "I long for a land . . . with no neurosis/no psychosis/no psychoanalysis/and no sadness." She owns her anger, but the melancholy is too confounding, too final. (Flopping her mop-top, she showed a studied exuberance her recent Knitting Factory show.) This longed-for land would also be where "no man was ever known." Backstage at an Indigo Girls concert? Call it a desire for anonymity, not banishment of her beloved snakes.

Hitting her marks like she's pounding nails
photo: Island Def Jam
Hitting her marks like she's pounding nails

Harvey played, recorded, and produced the entire disc herself at home, with Rob Ellis embedding drums and other percussion afterwards. Last album she sang about building a home with her lover; on this one she's retreated to her own. But disillusionment, coupled with the hindsight that comes after the red and before the rosiness, pays its dividends. And with no Steve Albini, Flood, or Thom Yorke to tool with her songs, Harvey hits her marks like she's pounding nails. "The End," which she dedicates to Gallo, is a snatch of guitar playing against what I'm guessing is accordion; nasal, entreating, and lonesome, the accordion buzzes for about a minute as the guitar shrugs between two wistful chords. They fade out together, silence their only meeting point.

Harvey may have a one-track mind, but she's got a multi-track voice, singing or strumming (or squeezing, as the case may be). "No Child of Mine" also devotes one minute to about two chords. Harvey repeats the terse, dismissive verse twice: first forbidding in the low registers and tearful up top, and then with Evelyn Isaac's reassuring falsetto layered over. There she disowns a childish lover. "It's You" follows a daughter, rebelling against the mom she worships, right into the arms of an opportunistic boy. It opens with a mannered, almost jaunty piano-and-drums groove, then becomes encrusted with Harvey's dialed-in bass and crimped girl-flirt croon. Like To Bring You My Love's "I Think I'm a Mother" stripped of its obscurity, the song entwines the filial and the carnal, finding fission in the nuclear family. Never mind Dr. Melfi. What would Sophocles make of this?

Basically, mother-lover stuff is Greek to me. But "The Letter," the first single, is an easy read. "Take the cap/off your pen," Harvey demands. "Wet the envelope/lick and lick it." She's got a lick of her own, a whip of liquid coal from the bowels of her instrument, sensuous sharp curves and stop-start motion, growling and shrill, grimy like a fuck six months in the making—seal it with hot wax and you're getting medieval. Meanwhile, the riff driving "The Life and Death of Mr. Badmouth" could be a dump truck grinding into gear, and she literally threatens to wash that mister's mouth out with soap. Harvey's not really very kinky, but she harnesses love's dark energy and its bedroom (living room, public bathroom) dramas better than anyone strapped to a guitar.

We've seen this fury before, and this self-imposed estrangement too. That's why she called it Uh Huh Her. But Harvey has discovered the thing that connects us even as it drives us apart, and her heart keeps growing in order to contain it.

 
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