P J Harvey - Is This Desire?

THIS TIME HER PATH DOESN'T seem so clear. It's been three years since PJ Harvey's last album, 'To Bring You My Love', and the reasons behind that are highly debatable. Certainly, 'Is This Desire?' arrives shrouded in rumours of record company interventions and Harvey's own health problems. Whatever the truth is, it seems certain that this time in contrast to her previous effortless reinventions she's been subject to profound doubts and confusions.

In her three years away, she's collaborated with Tricky and Nick Cave, as well as diversifying into acting and appearing with an avant-dance troupe while working with John Parrish on his 'Dance Hall At Louse Point' project. Whether this has contributed to any conflict between artistic desires and commercial expediency, it's hard to say. Her record company would undoubtedly like to see her cross the divide from cult artist to household name (the fact that she's already appeared before the baying crowds of TFI Friday is testimony to that), but if that really is Island's hope, then they're clearly in for an almighty struggle.

'Is This Desire?' is a wilfully uncommercial record. In the same way that the delta blues of 'To Bring You My Love' marked a radical shift away from the blazing anger of the Steve Albini-produced 'Rid Of Me', 'Is This Desire?' proves an equally shocking experience. Recorded once again with the aid of John Parrish and Flood, it's an album which offers an incredible extremity of sound. Like Tricky's recent 'Angels With Dirty Faces', it's built around a furiously rhythmical, and frequently ugly, electronic skeleton. Keyboards and guitars are distorted beyond recognition, melody is often disregarded altogether and the songs lurch violently between spectral vocals and the grind of heavy machinery.

The single, 'A Perfect Day Elise', will provide you with some idea of what's to come, but even its rumbling momentum and overloaded percussion is no preparation for the brutality of some of the material here. Particularly unpalatable are 'My Beautiful Leah' and 'Joy'; the first, a two-minute dirge of amp-destructing distortion and the latter an almost impenetrable mix of slowed beats and screeched vocals. Although these songs admittedly constitute the outer limits of 'Is This Desire?', they serve as a glaring indication of what this record is trying to achieve.

Lyrically as well, this is an oblique and intermittently harrowing affair. Anyone expecting confession or revelation or maybe even a response to Nick Cave's heartfelt missives from his 'The Boatman's Call' album will be disappointed. This is an album tormented by visions of endless women doomed by their own circumstances. In the space of just 40 minutes, we're presented with Angelene, Joy, Leah, Elise, two Catherines and countless other unnamed characters, all united by a sense of their own (almost comical) misfortune.

Hence, 'Joy' wants to be blinded, while 'Catherine' is "damned to hell". 'My Beautiful Leah' "only had nightmares and the sadness never lifted" while Catherine Number Two dreams of "children's voices and torture on the wheel" during 'The Wind'. The constant flicking between third- and first-person narratives suggests these songs may be a more accurate guide to the conception of this record than they first seem. Either way, they more than complement the unsettling tone of their accompaniments, ensuring that, throughout, 'Is This Desire?' is an unflinchingly morose experience.

Not that it's an album entirely devoid of beauty. There are at least three songs here that rank alongside the best things Harvey's ever done. The opening 'Angelene', with its brittle piano and sliding guitars, is as darkly beautiful and starkly affecting as anything from 'To Bring You My Love' as is 'The River'. 'The Garden', meanwhile, with its echoing drum-looped percussion and taut rhythm, at least offers some relief from the dense cacophony that surrounds it. These, though, are very much the exceptions.

The rest of 'Is This Desire?' shows a unified (and desperately uneasy) continuity of tone. At no point does it reek of hasty compromise or lack of confidence, it appears to be the record Harvey wanted to make from the outset. It's occasionally gruelling uncommerciality might not be what people wanted (or expected), but it remains the sound of PJ Harvey staking out her artistic territory and choosing a path. Sadly, it won't just be her record company who'll be disappointed by her choice.


James Oldham