No Words So Sweet | PJ Harvey’s Atmospheric, Dissent, and Poetic Masterpiece That’s Is This Desire?
Polly Jean Harvey garnered national attention with her first three albums. The drama, darkness, and bluesy nature of To Bring You My Love was something to be in awe of. Her follow up to that record, the collaborative record with John Parish Dance Hall at Louse Point, would be sonic harbinger of what was to come. It would both close out some of the more biblical allusions and imagery that showed up in To Bring You My Love, like in the song “Taut”, while greatly contextualizing her lyrical prowess into much more vivid places. With the release of her next project, Is This Desire, Polly would shift into a completely different direction sonically. The sultry, gothic feeling of her prior record has been replaced with industrial, atmospheric sounds. Her work with Tricky had clearly rubbed off on her as trip-hop has bled into this project in both beautiful and unsettling ways.
The depth of lyrical tapestry that she weaves on this record is truly something to behold. Harvey had clearly been inspired by the poetry and literature she had been reading. Many of the songs either take inspiration from or borrow directly from various literary sources. The opening track, “Angelene”, borrows lines from the J. D. Salinger short “Pretty Mouth and Green Eyes”. It’s a much different opener than “To Bring You My Love”. The story follows Angelene as she goes through her sins, desires, and hopes. The song really opens up in the chorus. Blooming in with piano and slide guitar.
The first single from the album, the abrasive industrial/alt-rock “A Perfect Day Elise”, borrows lines from J.D. Salinger’s short “A Perfect Day for Bananafish”. Harvey’s lyrics alluding to Seymour’s interaction with Sybil at the beach, “White sun scattered all over the sea/ He could think of nothing but her name Elise/ God is the sweat running down his back/ The water soaked her blonde hair black”. This shows the warped mindset of Seymour. The song also has the same ending as Salinger’s short, with Seymour returning to his hotel room where his wife is sleeping and killing himself. Polly channels this fatalistic mindset in the song’s final verse, “He got burned by the sun/ His face so pale and his hands so worn/ Let himself in room 509/ Said a prayer, pulled the trigger and cried/ It’s a perfect day/ A perfect day, Elise”. Sonically, the crunchy programmed drums, fuzzy keys, and harsh guitar really set the mood for the tale perfectly.
The second single off the album, the more ambient, trip-hop inspired “The Wind”, tells the story of St. Catherine, Catherine of Alexandria. The lyrics provide an allusion to her eventual tragic death via the spiked torture wheel, “She dreamt of children’s voices/ And torture on the wheel/ Patron-Saint of nothing/A woman of the hills”. She also blends in a bit of her noble upbringing in the following lines, “She once was a lady/ Of pleasure, and high-born/ A lady of the city”. Her legend is told through of mix of whispers and singing. The way Polly crafts this track is almost like the wind itself whispering this tale to you. “Catherine” is very much a sister song to “The Wind”. This time the story is told from the point of view of Maximian. Her vocal performance is one of her most interesting throughout her career. She adopts a huskier tone, which goes exceptionally well with muffled guitar and drums.
Her literary influences flood into other songs on the album. Both “Joy” and “The River” take some lines from the works of Flannery O’Connor. “Joy” takes a much more abrasive sonic turn with its industrial drums and its thick, dissonant keys. “The River” is much more soft in its delivery. The run of notes played on the piano fall almost like raindrops as her guitar adds an undercurrent to the track. I also really appreciate the horns on the song’s bridge. Continuing on the theme of Flannery O’Connor, “No Girl So Sweet” takes lines and inspiration from O’Connor’s short “The Life You Save Might Be Your Own”. It’s circular programmed drum sounds and aggressive guitar take you off running through the track. Add in Polly’s energetic delivery and you get this almost deranged pleading for a reciprocation of love.
Polly’s deep admiration for literature has greatly expanded her lyricism on the rest of the album’s tracks. “The Sky Lit Up” has an almost frantic euphoric feeling. Harvey sing’s on this new found joy and love she has, “And this world tonight is mine / A world to be remembered in / Think on a faded photograph / My hair longer than its ever been / And then, the sky lit up”. The driving guitar really puts you in this manic mindset. “My Beautiful Leah” is one of the more “uglier” songs on the album. It’s distorted drum programming and midi keys give the song the proper off-putting tone it needs. Lyrically, we follow a man trying to find his missing love fearing the worst, “She only had nightmares/ And her sadness never lifted / And slowly over the years / Her lovely face twisted / Did she come around here, Sir? / I swear you would remember / Black hair, Brown eyes”. “Electric Light” is one of the more stark tracks. It’s low synth and almost silent drum programming are really unnerving against Harvey’s lower register. The lines, “The beauty of her, under electric light / Tears my heart out every time / Dawn there waiting, right outside / Dawn there waiting, right outside / She tears my heart out every time”, give off this almost Jack the Ripper-esque tone of a man hunting for a sex-worker to murder. “The Garden” is another mellow track . Harvey’s lyrics conjure imagery of a fallen angel walking through the Garden of Eden pining for his lover. The final track, “Is This Desire?”, closes out this mercurial album on a calm note. The hushed guitars and synth add a bit of golden light through the thicket of sounds she’s cultivated on the record.
In an interview with The Guardian Polly had noted this record as being one of her favorites:
“I do think Is This Desire? is the best record I ever made — maybe ever will make — and I feel that that was probably the highlight of my career. I gave 100 per cent of myself to that record. Maybe that was detrimental to my health at the same time.”
You can see where her writing prowess started to come to its own here. It’s a testament to Polly’s willingness to experiment with sound and writing styles. Although it did not achieve the critical and commercial success of her prior album To Bring You My Love, it did garner Harvey her highest charting single in the UK, “A Perfect Day Elise” which reached number 25. I find her 2007 album, White Chalk, to be an almost sister record to this one. Both feel like the story telling are at the forefront. I highly recommend giving this album a listen. Some great highlights are:
- “A Perfect Day Elise”
- “The River”
- “No Girl So Sweet”
- “Is This Desire?”
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