Polly Jean Harvey has never been a simple doom-and-gloom shrieker, but on the last couple releases she seems to have been drifting toward some metaphysical abyss. On her 1996 collaboration with John Parish, Dance Hall at Louse Point, and 1998's Is This Desire? her fictional narratives seemed more and more distant from real life. But in 1999 she spent half the year in New York, where she wrote most of the new Stories From the City, Stories From the Sea (Island)—an album whose most consistent theme seems to be rediscovery. While many observers have noted the refreshing directness of lines like "I can't believe life's so complex / When I just wanna sit here and watch you undress," from "This Is Love," her new outlook is hardly simplistic. In song after song Harvey obsesses over the little things—a smile, a first kiss, New York's skyline, singing in an elevator—but she often tries to reconcile them with her existential sensibilities. In "Big Exit," for instance, she feels "immortal" with her lover, but she wants a gun. And "We Float" is about love overwhelmed by intensity of emotion: "I had a model's smile / You carried all my hopes / Until something broke inside." Musically the album is her most accessible and straightforward since her debut, Dry—in a couple spots she sounds strangely like Patti Smith, and here, like Smith, she is the indisputable focus of her simple songs. She's once again playing guitar in a trio, with bassist and keyboardist Mick Harvey and drummer Rob Ellis, a recently returned member of her original band. Stories From the City isn't her best album—that's still the brilliant To Bring You My Love—but it confirms her status as one of those rare stars who know themselves well enough to know when to make a change. Brick Layer Cake, the side project of Shellac drummer Todd Trainer, opens. Friday, December 15, 9 PM, the Vic, 3145 N. Sheffield; 773-472-0449 or 312-559-1212.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Maria Mochnacz.