PJ’s voice has always sat like a fidgety child somewhere between hair-pulling tantrums and remorseful bursts of tears. But when she positioned herself to record Stories From the City, Stories From the Sea in New York City — the heart of distraction — she found a purple, pulsing chamber for her songs. In recent albums, such as 1998’s Is This Desire?, Harvey seemed to drown in indecision. It’s what most fans love about her, but it was still hard to take. In this latest recording, PJ finds the right spot for a frantic shriek or a disastrous groan. Sounding a lot like Patti Smith in each vocal-guitar-driven melody, she searches for the heart of every tune. And this time, she places only a few of her vocal outbursts inside. Composed with Mick Harvey’s keyboard tension, subtle bass lines and Rob Ellis’ driving, steady percussion, the three of them find the eye of a storm.
PJ’s unmistakable vocal duality is still expressed in the lyrics. “The Whores Hustle and the Hustlers Whore” and the opener, “Big Exit,” are rigorous songs that set up thoughtful hypocrisies. Phrases like “All around me people bleed” are followed up with “This world’s crazy/give me a gun.” While some of the songs are rock workouts, there are also tracks with haunting melodies. This is the occasion when Thom Yorke rises as guest lead vocalist. The balance of the two musicians in “This Mess We’re In” is an androgynous and beautiful harmony. His vocals float high in the sky: “Can you hear them/the helicopters” and her voice swims in an undercurrent below: “The city sun sets over me.”
In Stories From the City, Stories from the Sea, everything within PJ Harvey pours out like liquid gold. She always was gold, but this time, we don’t sense any tragic extravagance. All the songs are reasonable rages and meltdowns. Her voice is not charred, burnt to a crisp. Its tension exists like tiny crackles of a flame. The surrounding music melts into liquid. Like her matriarch Patti Smith, PJ’s release proves she’s the fire — on land and water — she rises above.
Rebecca Mazzei writes about music and the arts for the Metro Times. E-mail email@example.com.