Like all critical darlings, PJ Harvey had a defining moment when she simultaneously endeared herself to rock writers and set off art-house panic alarms in the average listener. That moment was the opening line of her 1993 track Reeling: "I want to bathe in milk/ eat grapes," she raged. "Robert De Niro/ sit on my face." Raw, dark, witty and extremely sexual, Harvey had critics panting, and it's no wonder. But people who actually pay for records stared at the frequently naked form on her album covers; heard the heart-laid-bare, avant-garde songs about frustration and denial; and ran into the welcoming arms of Sarah McLachlan albums, wondering whether Harvey was a singer, a performance artist or some unfortunate combination of both.
The definitive answer arrives in Harvey's new album, Stories from the City, Stories from the Sea (Island). Turns out Polly Jean Harvey is indeed a terrific singer. After a brilliant but difficult five-album repertoire that fetishized rejection, Stories is filled with the kind of high-energy rock love songs that everyone-yes, everyone-can appreciate. "It is a happy album," says Harvey, 31, speaking from a London hotel room during a break in rehearsals for her U.S. tour. "At least it's a happier album. As I've gotten older I've just found a better sense of perspective, and that shows through the music. It's a little more whole and rounded-less spiky than it was before. It just naturally happened."
Even with no insight into her love life-she's notoriously private, not to mention British-it's still difficult to believe this mid-career blossoming, as she calls it, just happened. The songs sell her out. Stories opens with the glorious Big Exit, which peaks around the chorus, "Baby baby, ain't it true/ I'm immortal when I'm with you." A duet with Radiohead's Thom Yorke asks, "Do you remember the first kiss?" and is one of this year's most captivating love songs. Want more proof? Her previous album was titled Is This Desire?; Stories has a track called This Is Love. Good for her.
Harvey won't wear the L-word in her personal life, but she admits Stories is partially fueled by a newfound geographic passion. "I love New York City," she says. "Sometimes you find a place that just feels like your home, where you feel really alive and you are your own person. I love New York from the bottom of my heart." After working on a Hal Hartley movie in the city in 1998 (average listener, try not to hold his art-film pedigree against her), she spent the majority of 1999 living near Riverside Park in Manhattan and discovering the joys of walking by the water, staring at architecture and "mixing with all those different people." For someone who says she writes 80% of her music in her head while ambling about, New York was a godsend. "My writing did change a lot. It became much more specific and I became much more concerned with paying attention to detail and surroundings." Doesn't London, where she started her career, have details too? "Yes, but it doesn't have New York's energy."
Stories' songs are set in Brooklyn, Little Italy and the Empire State Building, but Harvey wants it made clear that this is not The New York Album. ("Half of it was written in other places, and, I don't know, The New York Album just sounds so ..." Horribly pretentious? "Oh, yes!") She's also confounded by lingering comparisons to Patti Smith, which were complimentary earlier in her career but now seem a bit confining. "I guess we do have a passion about the way we deliver and the nature of the things we're singing about. They're quite strong subjects sung in a strong way, so I can see comparisons there. And obviously Patti has lived in New York, so there's this New York thing now too. But she wasn't someone I was trying to emulate in any way on this record." Indeed, Smith, with the exception of a few brilliant songs, has clung mostly to her cult. PJ Harvey is ready for a wider embrace.