PJ Harvey
Stories From The City, Stories From The Sea


4.5
superb

Review

by Christopher Y. USER (27 Reviews)
January 11th, 2019 | 10 replies


Release Date: 2000 | Tracklist

Review Summary: Her most vibrantly fascinating album in her already fascinating catalog.

Back in my previous review about Wolf Alice’s Mercury Award-winning Visions of a Life, I noted that Mercury Award two time winner PJ Harvey is a musical chameleon who shifts her paradigm throughout her two-decade-long career. In fact, her musical shape-shifting is so mercuric and frequent that even the late David Bowie might be proud about it, as she once said, “[W]hen I'm working on a new record, the most important thing is to not repeat myself*... that's always my aim: to try and cover new ground and really to challenge myself. Because I'm in this for learning.” From the grungy, vengeance-soaked Dry, the opus Rid of Me(which turns 25 last year) and the bluesy, gothic melodrama To Bring You My Love to the piano-driven White Chalk and her stellar folky Let England Shake, it is difficult to define her in terms of artistry. However, even she is equipped with such an eclectic catalog, there is one common DNA in her albums—bleak and angst-ridden. Whether she was attacking toxic masculinity in songs like “50ft. Queenie”, or even speaks a fable of a woman drowning her rebel daughter in “Down By The Water”, the word “happy” doesn’t fit the description of PJ Harvey’s music. If you want a more cheerful PJ Harvey album, however, then her first Mercury Prize-winning album, Stories from the City, Stories from the Sea, most likely fits the bill: a polished pop/rock-oriented album that was inspired by her stay in New York City, Polly Jean Harvey has never sound so hopeful and glorious ever since.

Just take the rocking, The Rolling Stones-esque track “This Is Love” for example, in which she stated, “I can’t believe life is so complex, and I just want to sit here and watch you undress”, it is clear that this album is unlike any previous PJ Harvey albums, it is boasted with happiness and naivety. While songs such as “C’mon Billy” and “Water” is drenched with yearning blues, “Long Snake Moan” and “50ft. Queenie” shows Harvey’s most menacing side, and “A Perfect Day Elise” and “Legs” is smoldered with enigmatic horror, the songs within this 47-minute album are brighter, in terms of sound and lyrics. She didn’t just unleash her inner Chrissie Hynde and Patti Smith in the aforementioned “This Is Love”, as the syncopated guitars in “Good Fortune”, where she farewells to her bad fortune (“Threw my bad fortune off the top of a tall building”), soaks in happiness(“And I feel like some bird of paradise”) and embraces her new relationship(“In Chinatown hungover/You showed me just what I could do”), also recalls the Pretenders and punk matriarch at their prime. Moreover, she also showed her most surprising moments given to her dark princess persona in her previous albums, whether she was at her most relaxed in “You Said Something”, most hopeful in the soul-infused “A Place Called Home” and the towering “Beautiful Feeling”, most blissfully romantic in “One Line” and her dreamiest in the piano-laden “Horses In My Dream”. Such luminous moments really reflect the title itself, they are stories that could be originated from the city where Harvey get inspiration from, yet they sounded like they could come from beautiful words of a lonely sailor who lived on a sea for a long time, solidifying Harvey herself as a successful adventurer in music who is not afraid to reveal her most unlikely side.

Not every moment is blissful as the album’s general sound, as there are darker moments that recalls Is This Desire?, yet she combined it with the nocturnal atmosphere of New York City. The duet with Thom Yorke from Radiohead (who contributed backing vocals in “One Line” and “Beautiful Feeling”), “This Mess We’re In”, is a ballad about a break-up sex, with Yorke moaned about the distanced relationship with the girl who is played by Harvey(“You look me in the eye directly/You met me, I think it's Wednesday”), all the while questioning the nature of the relationship(“What were you wanting?”). Ultimately, the girl calls the end of this unhealthy relationship, with Harvey spoke, “And thank you/I don't think we will meet again/And you must leave now”. The melancholy highlight “The Whores Hustle and The Hustlers Whore” is a song that could’ve fit into To Bring You My Love or Is This Desire?, with churning, twisted rock riffs complemented the dark desire of humanity, from greed(“Heaven and earth don't ever mean enough”), decadence(“Speak to me of heroin and speed”) and the twisted perspective of love(“This isn't the first time I've asked for money or love”), among many others, giving a haunting shade to the generally bright tone of the album; The opener “Big Exit” is also a portrait painted with the colors of fear and insecurity, as she moans about not being lost (“I'm scared baby/I wanna run/This world's crazy/Give me the gun”) and seeks shelter in her lover’s hand (“I'm immortal when I'm with you/But I want a pistol in my hand”), contrasted the proto-punk sound of the track. The punky “Kamikaze” sounds like it’s a track that was left from the recording sections of Dry, as she mumbles why the man comes to her again, all the while readying for the titular army to attack her, with her howled, “Kamikaze, Kamikaze, you can't touch me, kamikaze”. The haunting closer “We Float” contains some of the most philosophical lyrics within this album, as Harvey explores about our ultimate desire(“We wanted to find love/We wanted success/Until nothing was enough/Until my middle name was excess”), poverty (“You shoplifted as a child/I had a model's smile/You carried all my hopes/Until something broke inside”) and death (“So will we die of shock?/Die without a trial/Die on Good Friday/While holding each other tight?”). These songs just revealed that Stories from the City… is more than just a bright pop-rock album, as Harvey just shows her multi-dimensional songwriting and perspective within this effort, flourishing it as a singer/songwriter masterpiece.

Even the album itself is jam-packed with excellent tracks, there are, unfortunately, some flaws that affected the quality of the album. In fact, the production on the album is too slick in some occasions, which is somewhat incompatible with Harvey’s generally jagged rock appeal, with songs such as the dance-infused beats in “We Float” can be replaced by more jangly guitar-rock sound, with such approach can give the album an enthralling end. Although I embrace the concept of musicians changing their sound, that doesn’t mean you should go overboard that it derails the quality of the album. Fortunately here, Harvey maintained her rock routes in most of the album, and that song is just the only mishap in terms of sound. Furthermore, the album lacks the aggression and menace in her previous works that make them triumphs. The reason why Harvey’s first three albums became classics today is that they contain dark aggression and abrasive sound that are presented eloquently, even the softer sounding (and quite underrated) Is This Desire? has a sense of darkness and layer of nightmare aesthetics that flourish it as a cult classic. In contrast, Stories from the City… does not have these X-factors that makes it so special, thus it is unfortunately not as engaging as her works in the 1990s. Then again, she is an explorer in music, and this record is more of her exploration towards the jazzy pop-rock territory, and I have to admit, she actually made that softer sound as the X-factor that many were mesmerized on, and ultimately created a magical and vital record in the 21st Century rock music.

Even though the album can sound overtly polished and soft at times, it perfectly captures the ambience of New York City, urgent, isolated, luminous and even a bit eerie, which is surprising given that Harvey’s British nationality and the fact that she wrote most of the material in London and her hometown Dorset. A rare upbeat album in her mostly grim and dark catalog, it also boasts some of her most accessible efforts which you can sing or hum along, while remaining her lyrical depth that discusses various topics from naiveness of upcoming life to happiness and loneliness, a powerful exhibition of her capability as a versatile and progressing songwriter. Sure, she may continued her upbeat direction and combined her primal aggression in the indie rock follow up Uh Huh Her and resumed her vision on America in the overtly political, relatively substandard yet impressively cinematic The Hope Six Demolition Project, and that New York art-punk band Sonic Youth also attempted to capture the similar feeling of the city in their quite underrated yet wacky NYC Ghosts & Flowers, but none of these albums would reach the same sublime heights as much as Stories from the City…. Perhaps because of such accomplished feature, this album becomes one of her best sellers to date, becoming her only album to go platinum in the UK. But more importantly, this masterpiece may not just serve as the portrait of the pre-9/11 NYC itself, but a musical lantern for many lost souls who are searching for their lost childhood happiness, and for those who are seeking a place that called their home.

Actual Rating:4.6/5

Personal Favourite:
Good Fortune
A Place Called Home
One Line
Beautiful Feeling
The Whores Hustle and The Hustlers Whore
This Mess We’re In
Kamikaze
This Is Love



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Comments:Add a Comment 
SherlockChris9021
January 11th 2019


147 Comments

Album Rating: 4.5

I've been writing it for several months, yet I couldn't finish it just minutes before I submit this review.

It's quite an honor to write this review since I am proud PJ Harvey fan myself, yet I realized I overlooked her catalog when I review albums, so here we are.

As always, any constructive criticisms are welcomed.

SherlockChris9021
January 11th 2019


147 Comments

Album Rating: 4.5

Oh, and there are two news: One, there will be another PJ Harvey album review coming soon. Second, I will soon change my writing name to a new name, yet I will remain my user name.

JohnnyoftheWell
January 11th 2019


12572 Comments

Album Rating: 3.0

Awesome review, have a hard pos

Only quibble - "Fortunately here, Harvey maintained her rock routes" roots?

Album isn't nearly as exciting or engaging as Is This Desire imo, probably my least favourite PJ from the five I've heard

Digging: Two People - First Body

ArsMoriendi
January 11th 2019


24730 Comments

Album Rating: 3.5

"Her most vibrantly fascinating album in her already fascinating catalog."



Nah, it's just her most accessible for those indie kids who don't like being challenged by her more creative stuff :P

Digging: Meat Puppets - Out My Way

ArsMoriendi
January 11th 2019


24730 Comments

Album Rating: 3.5

Aka her 2nd worst album



but still good



I'm a huge PJ Harvey fanboy, so you can trust me ;)

Dissonant
January 11th 2019


335 Comments

Album Rating: 4.0

Really enjoyed this album. Was just listening to it the other day. 'A Place Called Home' is a damn fine track

SherlockChris9021
January 11th 2019


147 Comments

Album Rating: 4.5

Yes, Ars, I get what you mean, compared to her strongest effort, this sound really pale. But still compare to other albums, it sounds more brighter and vibrant than rest of others.

ArsMoriendi
January 11th 2019


24730 Comments

Album Rating: 3.5

Brighter in a literal sense? I guess, but I always though she was way better at being dark and moody anyway





SherlockChris9021
January 11th 2019


147 Comments

Album Rating: 4.5

Johnny, I agree that it’s not exciting as her previous four albums (If you discount one that is her collab album with John Parish), it just an accessible rock album, not meant to be engaging, so I know why some fans dislike this album, but I think the songwriting makes it so good.

SherlockChris9021
January 11th 2019


147 Comments

Album Rating: 4.5

Agreed, she is actually better when she is in her moody side, Let England Shake is another example imo.



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