Review Summary: For Tomorrow: A Guide to Contemporary British Music, 1988-2013 (Part 50)
The myth of pre-9/11 New York City being a raw and authentic metropolis oozing with sexuality is probably false. The myth of post-9/11 New York City becoming a spit-shined and polished Disneyland is probably false too. But the definite truth, and definite cliche at this point, is that 9/11 changed everything with a spread unrivaled by any major event in American history. Truly, nothing was the same after that day.
Including Stories from the City, Stories from the Sea
. Written about PJ’s experiences in New York, much of the album seems to tremor with an eerie foreboding. I mean, the first line of the first song is a yelped “Look out ahead/See danger come.” The album is littered with little lyrics that take on worlds of new meaning in the wake of 9/11. “And the bells keep ringing/And the battle is won/And the planes keep winging/And I'm right on time.” “Can you hear them? The helicopters/I'm in New York/No need for words now.” “I just feel like it’s the end of the world.” Frenetic barnstormer “Kamikaze” is particularly unnerving, with such right on the money lyrics like “How could that happen?/How could that happen again?/Where the *** was I looking/When all his horses came in?” or “Beyond all reason/Beyond all my hopes/The call of duty/Another war zone” or “Eight miles high/He walks his path/And I follow mine/One tooth for one eye/He's come to find me”.
Upon release Stories from the City, Stories from the Sea
was overwhelmingly well received but a small contingent of critics disowned the album for forsaking the unstable and wild eyed sound of previous PJ Harvey albums. Indeed Harvey is in a much better place here than previous works and the production, headed by Rob Ellis, is a clean and direct reflection of that. So yeah, there are some songs here with great hooks on em. Hell, a few songs here are even about love. But if you think “Wanna chase you round the table, wanna touch your head” is another typical pop lyric about love you’re clearly from a different dimension. Throughout Stories from the City
Harvey sounds drunk off life and talent and simply wants to peel away a bit of the pricklier elements of her sound in order to let more people in.
“Things I once thought/Unbelievable/In my life/Have all taken place” Harvey beams on “Good Fortune”. By all accounts PJ Harvey had an amazing 90s, releasing 4 albums to great acclaim and surprisingly strong sales. Her decision to manifest her happiness in her music is thrilling to listen to. I’m sure she could have released another wild and angry record if she wanted to but instead she decides to project her newfound confidence and wanderlust onto the music. To listen to Stories from the City, Stories from the Sea
is to take wing alongside Harvey and soar with her. “Broke the record, found the gold/Set myself free again,” she sings on “Horses in My Dreams”, “I have pulled myself clear.” The “pulled myself” part is important. Harvey worked for her happiness and once she grasped it there was no letting go.
Of course, if Stories from the City
was nothing but beaming radiance and positivity, it wouldn’t be very compelling, so we also get the tension that comes with wondering when it’s all going to come caving in again. On the desolately empty “Beautiful Feeling”, Harvey sings “But he's the best thing/A beautiful feeling” and means it but with nothing but guitar and ghostly backing vocals surrounding her it tremors with unsaid emotion. “You Said Something” gives us all the details surrounding an important conversation (time, place, people) except the most critical one. “You said something/that I've never forgotten” states Harvey, doubling down on the second line, giving it a creeping air of menace.
Despite not being released as a single, “This Mess We’re In” has become the most popular song off of Stories from the City
. A lot of this has to do with the presence of a certain singer whose name rhymes with Bomb Porke but it does have an equal amount to do with the fact that it really is just a fantastic song. It tells a tale of two doomed lovers that, like all great stories, it greater for what it doesn't say then what it does say. It takes us, in media res, to the end of the story. As the two (Or perhaps just one) sit in a New York high rise, awaiting their fate.
The overwhelming stress of post-9/11 America sent soccer mom chillout bangers like “Only Time” and “Superman (It’s Not Easy)” rocketing up the charts. If only someone had been around to point these lost souls to Stories from the City
closer “We Float” instead we’d be living in a better world right now. It’s verses are typically thorny Harvey but the chorus is just so flat out earnest and corny it’s immediately disarming. It’s message transcends cliche and takes on meaning again, “We float/Take life as it comes”.
PJ Harvey’s Stories from the City, Stories from the Sea
won the Mercury Music Prize on September 11, 2001. She was in Washington DC at the time and received the news of her victory from a hotel room overlooking the Pentagon. She referred to the whole ordeal as “A very surreal day”. Despite the unshakable metatext Stories from the City
now carries with it, it remains a singular document of delirious happiness. It’s the sound of one woman stepping into her full power while being kind enough to let us inside that feeling, if only for a little while.