The work of PJ Harvey
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Is This Desire? (1998)

The cult of ‘authenticity’ in popular music is a strong one, and Harvey had gained as much kudos for her apparently viscerally ‘authentic’ work as she had been at the receiving end of dismay and shock for it. Both sentiments were of course severely wide of the mark. Is This Desire? is even less ‘authentic’ than the overt theatrics of To Bring You My Love: Harvey insisted that writing the album involved delving into the recesses of her psyche, but those emotions and thoughts are then projected onto a cast of characters who enact them for her. It’s a set of remarkably distant compositions, and she even dares to create the kind of third-person narratives she once scorned. She compounded the sin by discovering synthesisers, and while ‘authentic’ instruments like drums and guitars are still present on the recording, they move mostly into the background. Is This Desire? marks the point PJ Harvey went electric.

It’s also a very dreamlike album. Even the heaviest synth tracks, such as ‘My Beautiful Leah’ and ‘Electric Light’, feed into the sense of enclosure and phantasm, but it’s the very quiet pieces, most obviously the intricate, delicate ‘The Wind’ and the tender ‘The River’, that generate the impression of a series of images drifting in front of the listener, blending into one another. With the exception of the towering coastal storm that is ‘A Perfect Day Elise’, a narrative that ends in a murder in a hotel room (and which aurally looks forward to Harvey’s next album), the mainly melancholy short stories come to no conclusion: they are as open-ended as desire itself, which is the point of the exercise. It’s very hard to work out what’s going on in ‘Electric Light’ or even who is speaking. ‘The Garden’ describes a male protagonist ‘thinking of his sins’ when another male figure appears who promises ‘gold and mountains’ but who after a kiss leaves him alone. ‘There was trouble taking place’, the song concludes, and that’s all we get (could it be an inversion of Gethsemane – Judas kissed by Jesus?). In the title track, a couple walk together, light a fire, and then ask ‘Is this desire? Enough, enough to lift us higher?’ These are the most ambiguous pieces, but the whole album, almost, drinks from the same spring. Landscape plays a greater role than in Harvey’s earlier work: there is sea, river, garden, sun, and cityscape in abundance, but apart from ‘The Wind’, inspired by a very identifiable Dorset site, none of it is explicit enough to anchor the music in a particular place.

Nevertheless Is This Desire? is, within these boundaries, still very varied. It isn’t all brooding sorrow: ‘The Sky Lit Up’ is upbeat and carefree if a little unhinged, and ‘Angelene’ has its narrator looking for redemption (‘two thousand miles away, lays open like a road’). Less comfortingly, ‘Catherine’ is a song of murderous jealousy and obsession, building up tension between the angry lyric and the low-key music; while bursting into the middle of the album is the astonishing nihilistic masterpiece ‘Joy’, taking heavy beyond heaviness into a harsh, atonal, hellish place, Harvey shrieking the lyrics like a possessed seeress, ending on the word ‘no’ and a dead stop. The tracks move constantly between these poles, never allowing the listener to get complacent.

This is an insinuating, insidious recording that takes its time to work. Entering the world of Is This Desire?  is rather like coming into a room with heavy curtains closing the windows, tapestries on the walls, thickly upholstered furniture, and scent in the air. It takes a while for your eyes to get accustomed to the dark, and one is not sure, really, whether it’s completely safe.

She’s 28.

Non-album tracks, 1998-1999

Is This Desire? produced the usual crop of b-sides, including a couple of inconsequential instrumental pieces and the very weird ‘The Northwood’, about which all sorts of rumours circulate thanks to the presence on this menacing, folk-inflected love song of a male singer credited as ‘James Lynch’. The released recording is so awful – it starts with a squeak and trails off in the middle of the song – it sounds as though it was taped in the back of a pub and then rediscovered a couple of years later at the bottom of a holdall, so it could be that James Lynch was just somebody Harvey grabbed from the front of the pub. ‘Sweeter Than Anything’ is a downbeat break-up lyric which shares some of the atmosphere of the album; ‘The Bay’, an effective exercise in bluesy regret, very similar in tone to the later ‘Nickel Under the Heel’ and a couple of other tracks; ‘Nina in Ecstasy’, a peculiar, very simple organ-accompanied song (‘Nina was a young girl, now she’s dead/Grew older, grew colder, now she’s lost her way’) which quotes ‘Chirpy Chirpy Cheep Cheep’ and sounds more like an out-take from White Chalk than the late-90s PJ Harvey; and the gorgeous, slow, synth-heavy ‘Rebecca’'s omission from the album is hard to fathom. 

Just before Is This Desire? came out, Harvey worked with French musician Pascale Comelade, providing lyrics and vocals for three of his compositions, which became the yearning ‘Love Too Soon’, the tormented ‘Green Eyes’ on which Harvey sounds uncomfortably more like Nick Cave than Cave does (presumably a sardonic response to his similarly-titled and quite rude song about her on The Boatman's Call), and the rather splendid ‘Featherhead’, which is both short and to the point. They’re all very French, which isn’t a surprise. ‘Love Too Soon’ also appears on the soundtrack to the 1998 movie The Book of Life, in which Harvey appeared as a Gothed-up Mary Magdalen, telling the Devil to ‘get your feet off of that bedspread’ in a Dorset accent. However the more powerful track is the one she wrote for the film, ‘The Faster I Breathe the Further I Go’, slow, insistent, heavily distorted, and brutally urban (‘I’m walking outside and the headlights are blinding … The panic, the laughter, the stink of disaster’) – a claustrophobic, pitch-perfect psalm for a city (not just New York) on the brink of Millennial apocalypse.

It took until 2017 for a further set of three pieces of music from this era to emerge. At some time in 1998-9, as Harvey was writing the songs that went into Stories from the City, Stories from the Sea, she seems to have worked with New York ambient metal band Teledubgnosis on tracks called 'Eyes', 'Idea of You', and 'Life on Mars'. The first two are slight, obsessive-love lyrics, though 'Eyes' gains some additional interest from its best lines being re-used for 'A Girl Like Me' a couple of years later, a rare insight into Harveyan working practices. 'Life on Mars' is heavier and darker, rather reminiscent of 'Joy' from the album though without quite the same hard edge. The songs were released by one of the band's former members: what Harvey thought about it is unclear!