Like many teenage boys I was scared of and confused by women for a long time. Especially strong, passionate, intelligent women. I suspect this isn’t all that unusual given the culture we live in, sadly. I was also, as an adolescent, bemused and perplexed by the idea of solo artists – for a handful of years back then I liked bands, and the platonic essence thereof, and I was intrigued by the dynamics thereof (and still am), and couldn’t quite see how one person could produce something as multifaceted and complex as I was generally looking for in music. I’ve never subscribed to the myth of the romantic artist or the lone genius, and I had somehow come to the belief that (slightly antagonistic) collaboration was the key to artistic success (in music). The Beatles, and all the cultural mythology that surrounds them, are probably to blame for this. I had a vague notion that all solo artists would be like folk singers, dolefully strumming acoustic guitars and maybe mouth-farting into a harmonica occasionally whilst telling me a boring story. Bob Dylan, and all the cultural mythology that surrounds him, is probably to blame for this.
Which is to say that, apart from brief glimpses of videos (“50ft Queenie” as a particularly memorable example thereof) or snatches of singles on the radio (“Down By The Water”, for example), I didn’t listen to PJ Harvey during the 90s at all, because she was a woman and a solo artist to boot, too. In 2013 I feel rather stupid about this; I wasted a decade in which she was a prolific and vital musical force, one that came from (essentially) my neck of the woods and who, I would discover in 2000 with Stories From The City, Stories From The Sea, I find to make beautiful, exhilarating, emotion-rich music.
I’m not sure what it was what prompted me to dive into PJ’s oeuvre with this record; the acclaim it received, a certain emotional and aesthetic maturation in my listening habits, the way people described it as being melodic and direct, the fact that it’s the only PJ Harvey album that Captain Beefheart didn’t like (she solicits his opinion of each album prior to release), but some confluence of circumstance occurred, I tried it, and I was smitten.
Listening again, knowing her full discography, worshiping the energy of her debut and the drama of To Bring You My Love and the artistry of Let England Shake and the raw passion of Rid Of Me, and the punchy, guitar-driven songs and clear vocal melodies that typify Stories… now seem a little prosaic to me, but at the time it was an incredible gateway drug. I went backwards through her records, discovering the rich textures and emotions and changes of direction that existed elsewhere, and cursed my teenage self for being scared of listening to PJ Harvey for so long.
Ironically, the opening four songs are all so clear, so direct, so good, that they almost merge into one in my mind, harmonium and electric piano and keyboards and accordion mixing together into anonymous beds of sound which exist purely to drive the melodies, which are bright and lucid. The thrashing guitars and throaty energy of “This Is Love” and the lusty haze of “This Mess We’re In” add texture, but even the elegiac, deathly “Horses In My Dreams” and dreamy, metronomic “We Float”, which are both beautiful, feel a little like exercises in producing perfect moments for AM radio. The unhinged, black-eyed savagery and uncompromising, beautiful art of PJ’s best, most idiosyncratic work isn’t quite present, but Stories From The City, Stories From The Sea is still an amazingly communicative, forthright, and brilliant record.