his record is redemption.
Polly Jean Harvey’s previous work has laid bare a life of painful desire, abject rejection and coiling hatred. She is a woman who has never known peace, love, or contentment, a woman who has sought and fought deeper pain, and a woman who has had more bitter heartache and emptier loneliness than anything we might care to fear. Her last album, 1998’s Is This Desire, was a brutal, near unlistenable collision of fractious electronics, deadening bass and alternating first and third person tales of broken and bloodied women, beaten, raped, spurned and left for dead. It left many people fearing for her health, both physical and emotional.
This is a New York record made by a westcountry girl who grew up in the midst of moors and cliffs and rural English loneliness, a million miles from Fifth Avenue, Manhattan and the Empire State. Urgent, vivid, passionate and violent, Stories From The City... is an evocative document of a woman finally and joyously coming to terms with who she is, a woman at long last finding hope. The melodies burn clearer and brighter than they have for years, Polly Jean singing and playing guitar with an ardour and an enthusiasm that we were afraid she had lost. "Big Exit" is an energized, furious, and driven opening to the album, guitars to the fore, and Polly expressing a feeling so strong that it can momentarily break down the fears of a dangerous world, “baby, baby / ain’t it true / I’m immortal / when I’m with you”.
Something amazing has happened to her in the two years between Is This Desire and this record, something profound and positive. "Good Feeling" lets us know that Polly has taken her past pain and fear and disposed of it utterly, throwing off the shackles that for too long have caused her tears to be of anguish and not of love. “Things I once thought / unbelievable / in my life,” she tell us, “have all taken place.” Never before did she seem capable of the captured bliss of "You Said Something", a moment of wonder caught perfectly in song that leaves us to ponder what those words must have been to affect a reaction this powerful. "One Line" and "Beautiful Feeling" are honest, unclichéd and genuinely moving love songs made even more potent because they have been written by a woman who had up till now seemed too engulfed by scorned and lustful fury to be capable of such delicacy and affection. "Kamikaze" and hidden track "This Wicked Tongue" buzz with the kind of rage we first felt on Rid Of Me, meaning the album is by no means unanimously positive in tone, but Polly’s anger is now focused squarely at her demons and not at herself. The noise is cathartic now, not destructive.
“I have pulled myself clear” is the fragile mantra weaved through "Horses In My Dreams", and is perhaps the most important line of the album. She knows she isn’t quite free yet, that she has a long way to go before she reaches peace, but she knows she’s done the hardest part by taking hold of her life and hauling it out of the pain that she had come to think of as natural. "We Float" ends the album on a beatific note, taking stock of how Polly had found herself as low as she was, before rolling slowly but perpetually towards the new horizon in her life.
Polly Jean Harvey has always had one of the most talented and potent voices in music, but now, thankfully, she no longer has one of the most tortured souls behind it. Stories From The City, Stories From The Sea is a record in love with life, in love with rock and roll, and in love with new found hope.
Reviewed by: Nick Southall
Reviewed on: 2003-09-01