I… cannot ignore what we have shared together. I don’t care what you say, but if you were 100% fulfilled in your marriage I never would have seen that raw, intense sexuality that I saw a few times–watching your mouth on my breast or looking in your eyes while you explored the depth of my sex. Instead, it would have been a routine encounter void of anything but a sexual release.”
It reads like a passage from a Danielle Steele novel, but the previous paragraph is a fragment of a deleted file recovered from Ms. Lewinsky’s home computer, as detailed in part 479 of the Starr Report. Upon reading it, one wonders: does the woman typing at the keyboard picture herself as a victim–a woman scorned–or an agent provocateur? “Surfacing” aside, is the song she’s the secret star of when she’s driving alone at night “You Oughta Know” by Alanis Morissette or “Rid of Me” by PJ Harvey?
Only one thing is certain, and that is that Lewinsky has imbibed the age old myth that hot sex = love, and love, of course, is the tippy-top achievement of the female condition. These ideas have enslaved and ruined millions of women over the centuries; surely Monica’s story proves once and for all that obsessive love is not romantic but ignoble, a hopeless mess of self-deception from whence no good can come. It does, however, make for compulsively gripping narrative, which is why both the Starr Report and PJ Harvey’s entire oeuvre are so peculiarly riveting. Clearly, the great lost lesson of the report is that obsessive love simply cannot stand up to the cold hard light of day. When filtered through the harsh medium of, say, a grand jury testimony, it looks delusional and dumb.
Harvey’s text is the more convincing–particularly this month, when her favorite subject matter has lifted itself out of the realm of hysterical melodrama and onto the front page. Over and over, Harvey has shown obsessive love flat-out for what it is: ugly, mean, selfish, debauched. Yet it is her triumph as an artist that instead of making the subject look unbearable–as the Starr Report certainly does–she makes it understandable, pitiable, even beautiful at times. Her songs are the snares that trap the Monicas of the world, and when, on the title cut of her new album, she asks fretfully, “Is this desire enough? Enough to lift us higher? To lift us above?” she really gets to the heart of the matter. No wonder her voice quivers with desperation. Is this desire, and is what follows from desire right? Sane? Decent? Dignified? Honest? Did Monica and Bill ever ask themselves what their loathly, physical desire would wreak? I doubt it–and I doubt they could listen to Is This Desire? with any peace of mind.
The album is Harvey’s fourth (not counting a collaboration with John Parish), and like those previous it’s unswervingly truthful emotionally. But she’s made the music become less provocative, replacing forceful hard rock with spare and muted tracts awash with bleak, mood-inducing sound effects and foreboding industrial tones. Harvey’s musical metier is textures, and she’s still growing more adept at varying them, but for all that her songs often sound as if the brain behind the music is burdened by relentless sonic pessimism. At one place in the CD booklet (which has printed Harvey’s own handwritten remarks on it), she notes to herself “soften and beautify.” Forget it: catharsis and uplift are not part of the paradigm here.
Still, to listen to her sing is again to become engulfed by the sulky, sultry, atmosphere of obsession. Sometimes–as on “Angelene”–that atmosphere is lovely; sometimes (as on “Joy” and “Electric Light”) it is harsh and crushing. Always, however, it is one perfectly hewn chunk of truth, and truth, as we know, is beauty. So often before Harvey has seemed over the top, a hysteric Emily Brontë character come to life. (You know: “Heeeeeaaaath-clifffffff!”) Now, with Monica’s testimony in your mind, her ethos has turned documentary.
Though set within a quiet framework–hushed and somber beats, a lush grand piano, and only the occasional soaring melody, usually sung at a snail’s pace–Is This Desire? seethes with lovesickness; there is nothing worth seeking but love, love, love. But the knowledge Harvey’s harrowed voice invariably conveys is that no perfect love exists. To the singer’s deluded protagonists, desire–even just the gratification of bodily lust–justifies everything, from deception to betrayal, just as it did for Monica and Bill. Harvey herself is pulled more by the concept of desire itself, in how its grip is willed into being.
Maybe that’s because she recognizes its dangerous kinship to another form of obsessive love: religion. “Throw your pain in the river to be washed away slow,” she sings on “The River,” one of the record’s spookier and more attractive cuts, while “The Wind”–which reuses Harvey’s already effective whispering trick from “Down by the Water”–is an equally sinister number about a certain self-proclaimed Saint Catherine, “patron saint of nothing,” who listens to the wind and indulges in various scourges. On the lovely opening track, “Angelene,” a whore of that name swathes herself in religious ecstasy to excuse her conduct–and Harvey pardons her folly in a slow, beautiful melody and achingly sweet vocal: “Dear God, life ain’t kind. People getting born and dying. But I’ve heard that joy untold . . . lays open like a road in front of me.”
And as the music swells, so does the woman’s self-deception. Ah, delusion! How sweet it must be to allow it into your brain–to convince yourself that everything you do is justified by “love.” Truly, Monica is the guy in “Catherine,” who sings, “Catherine DeBarra, you’ve murdered my thinking, I gave you my heart, you left the thing stinking.” And Bill is the girl in “No Girl So Sweet” who mutters, “How much more can you take from me?” to a man who worships her.
Meanwhile, “A Perfect Day Elise,” the album’s single and one of the few songs here which moves swiftly enough to be called “rock,” is about a stalker of some kind–the kind of person that White House deputy chief of staff Evelyn Lieberman calls “a clutch.” And in “My Beautiful Leah,” a woman searches for her daughter, who has left her with the words, “If I don’t find it this time, then I’m better off dead.” Are these people warped or what?
Is This Desire? doesn’t break any new ground for Harvey, but that doesn’t really matter. At this point in time, the kind of shocks her singular music administers are shocks of recognition. Always, she poses as a woman who is not even pretty on the inside, and the pose is both mystifying and familiar. Is This Desire? may not be PJ Harvey’s finest moment on record, but it certainly resonates, the unwitting soundtrack to this era’s saddest spectacle.