Is This Desire?
40:24 min • Island Records • September 28, 1998
Andrew Darley reviews
Polly Jean Harvey has become known for shifting gears and crafting new worlds for every album. Since her early blues-infused rock records of the early ‘90s, she has decidely chosen a new direction and concept for each new work. With an almost allergic resistence to repeat herself, each record sets up a challenge for herself, and often times, her fans.
She has ventured the gleaming production of Stories From The City, Stories From The Sea, the lo-fi self-produced Uh Huh Her to White Chalk, an album primarily written on piano, an instrument she had no experience of beforehand. Her brave manifesto may be intially satisfying for herself but her commitment to songwriting and its craft has not gone unnoticed by fans and critics alike. Her most recent album, Let England Shake, was applauded for its humane and sobering exploration of war which earned her a second Mercury Music Prize and an Ivor Novello Award for Best Album in 2012.
Harvey explained how she took months to write the words of the songs alone before she even put a hand on an instrument to create the music. The striking and poetic lyrics held the weight and damage of war and presents the stories, lives and experiences of those who have lived through it across history. In retrospect, the importance she places on words, narrative and exploring new discourses in music can be most evidently heard on her 1998 album Is This Desire?
Following her 1994 offering To Bring You My Love, witnessed Polly ditch her jeans and tank-tops in favour of a catsuit-wearing, bright-eyed, larger-than-life persona with which to present the treacle-blues music; Harvey decided to change direction musically and stylistically when returning to the studio in 1997. The album that emerged marked a conscious effort to focus on story in her work and also marked the first time Polly was confident enough to publish her lyrics in the album’s booklet. In its broadest sense, the album examines the concept of desire; the search, the experience and its loss. Over the twelve songs she intricately weaves voices, characters and locations to explore the intense feeling of love (and the devastation it can bring) that we hold for those around us.
It’s no secret Harvey drew inspiration and themes from several short stories that inspired the music, particularly Flannery O’Brien’s A Good Man Is Hard To Find and JD Sallinger’s Nine Stories. Polly immersed herself in these texts to embody and bring their characters to life, using direct references and quotations. However, the album is not bound to the works that influenced the music, rather it gestures to them, taking on a form that transcends these works.
The main thread which runs through the twelve songs is the instensity of love and the extremes that it can drive us too. The album opens with ‘Angelene’, inspired by Sallinger’s short story ‘Pretty Mouth, Green My Eyes’, which tells the life of a woman living on the coast whom decrees, “any man calls I’ll let him in” in the hope of escaping her loneliness and to find love. On the lead single of the album, ‘A Perfect Day Elise’, Polly evokes the moments following one man’s murder of his lover in their hotel room. She captures both the hysteria and calm of the woman’s devastating demise and the feelings that overwhelm him as the water soaks his partner’s “blonde hair black”. Similarly, ‘Joy’ offers something very different to what the title suggests. Referencing one of Flannery O’Brien’s women, who is thirty years old, “alive, unwed”, and house-bound due to a life-long disabiltity. Therein lies the power of Polly’s lyrical approach of the album; she draws lines from characters, written by other artists, and transforms them into something new for the listener. One need not read the source texts, or even know about them, since the people of the songs do not need their backgrounds revealed to be understood. Rather, the short stories were a device adopted for artisitic imagination, which allows the listener to paint their own understanding of the songs.
Arguably, the album’s finest and most arresting moment is the tormented cry of ‘My Beautiful Leah’. Composed on drum machine and a foreboding synthesizer, the song slowly builds with a crescendo of crashing cymbals and Harvey’s menacing channeling of Leah’s forelorn lover. Its short, sharp simplicity captures the essence of the record in exactly two minutes: translating emotion through story and song in its most basic way. The song leaves us with Leah’s desperate plea to find meaning in her life, an utterance which is hair-raisingly chilling:
It never leaves my mind,
The last words she said,
“If I don’t find it this time, then I’m better off dead.”
This album stands as a peak in PJ Harvey’s career. She took a very brave step in departing from the music she had become loved and recognised for, favouring the tools and mechanisms of the studio and electronic music. The album ranges from assertive and daunting reckonings of the album’s theme to some of her most harrowingly beautiful songs, including the title song and ‘The River’. In the same way she expansively dealt with the experience of war on 2011’s Let England Shake, this record embodies the wide spectrum of emotions that arise from our desires. Is This Desire?, like her other records, is both distinct in its concept and style, yet exists as a significant step in the creative journey Polly has defiantly taken on the road less travelled.