PJ Harvey strips love down to its elements

PJ Harvey strips love down to its elements

The album may or may not be obsolete, but the fact remains: Listeners have long obsessed over individual songs. The Single File is The A.V. Club’s look at the deep cuts, detours, experiments, and anthems that make us reach for replay.

Love songs aren’t supposed to deal in certainty. From Cole Porter to Frank Ocean, songwriters have long squeezed bittersweet juice from the low-hanging fruit of uncertainty, confusion, and unrequited longing. Unresolved conflict, after all, is the heart of drama—and what good is a love song, even a happy one, if it’s not at least a little melodramatic?

PJ Harvey came on like a drama queen with her 1995 breakthrough album, To Bring You My Love. Brash, poised, and gutsy enough to maintain a chilling austerity in the face of alt-rock overabundance, the album didn’t lack confidence. Yet the disc’s title track is an exquisite exercise in agony, apocalypse, and sacrifice—a song that claws its way through an Old Testament minefield of metaphors for frustrated love.

Harvey wandered off the path on 1998’s lackluster Is This Desire?; as reflected in the album’s sparse, hesitant title track, the protagonist of her songs now doubted her own romantic agency—and even Harvey’s prior character who, three years earlier, had “traveled over dry earth and floods” just to consummate an undying love.

Harvey has gone out of her way to point out that her songs are of course by no means autobiographical, so it is absolutely forbidden that any significance be read into the fact that Harvey dated and broke up with Nick Cave between the release of To Bring You My Love and the making of Is This Desire?. With that possibility banished from the equation, her 2000 album, Stories From The City, Stories From The Sea, should be viewed only in the context of her preceding output. That said, something striking must have happened in the two years after Is This Desire?—because Harvey was no longer asking questions or nurturing uncertainty. She was snarling, definitively and declaratively. She was singing “This Is Love.”

Overall, Stories From The City is a lush and subtle album, full of dreamy atmosphere and shadowy artiness (even when Thom Yorke isn’t guesting, which he does on three stellar tracks). But everything comes to a screeching halt—then lurches into warp drive—on “This Is Love.” The riff is the sound of horny dinosaurs dry-humping mountainsides. Most obviously it’s an homage to Ron Asheton’s primordial guitar on The Stooges’ “No Fun,” but it also recalls the opening of The Heartbreakers’ punk anthem “Chinese Rocks,” a slinky, sordid spasm of distortion that is predatorily sensual. Only “This Is Love” is heavier.

Harvey isn’t trying to be seductive. The tryst of which she sings isn’t something she’s longing for, but a foregone conclusion; all she’s left to do is matter-of-factly (and maybe self-referentially) wonder why anyone would feel the need to complicate such a fundamental, simply satisfied urge as sex. Taking Occam’s razor to the Gordian knot of love-song tradition, she slices a century’s worth of romantic handwringing and second-guessing, and she does so with the clinical precision of a surgeon—a surgeon, if the song’s video is to be believed, who wears a fringed white suit into the operating theater. “I can’t believe life’s so complex / When I just wanna sit here and watch you undress,” she deadpans in the first verse, setting a dominant tone for the chorus to come.

And come it does. Over a slippery chord change and the eerie keyboard of longtime collaborator (and then a member of Cave’s Bad Seeds) Mick Harvey, PJ doesn’t bring her love to anyone, nor does she ponder whether her font of conflicted emotions and biological requirements amount to desire. She just states, “This is love / This is love / That I’m feeling.” Period. No searching of the soul needed.

In fact, Harvey makes it clear that she’s about had it with all the angst and ambiguity surrounding the act of lovemaking—and of love-song-making. Ditching the leaden symbolism and biblical allegory of “To Bring You My Love,” she cuts straight into bone, singing with an anguish-free clarity of intent, “Does it have to be a life full of dread? / I wanna chase you round the table, wanna touch your head.” 

Harvey being Harvey, though, she can’t escape her own gravitational pull—and in particular, the poetic reflection that makes her best love songs unfold in multiple dimensions. In the song’s final verse, after asserting her aversion to complication so strongly and straightforwardly, she complicates things. “You’re the only story that I never told,” she confesses self-referentially, letting the song get meta for a moment while tying the lyrics back into the title of the album itself. “You’re my dirty little secret, wanna keep you so / Come on out, come on over, help me forget / Keep the walls from falling on me, tumbling in.”

As much as Harvey wishes she could pretend otherwise, there’s still a gaping hole in her heart—and she’s using her lover to plug it. The cynicism, confusion, and complexity have crept back in, so soon after she protested so much against them. “This Is Love” is the kind of song that can get dismissed—or wishfully misinterpreted—as an example of a strong female artist presenting herself as sexually aggressive, and playing into both feminist idealism and fantasy fulfillment. And there’s always the possibility that the refrain of “This is love / This is love / That I’m feeling” is Harvey’s attempt to convince herself of something she’s unsure about—or already knows isn’t real.

But Harvey is not necessarily the women whose voices she speaks through in her songs, nor is she always singing from the point of view of any one gender. Like Stories From The City, Stories From The Sea hints in its titles, these are tales. Some stories may be true; others may not. Most are probably both, depending on how literally you take them. Like all of Harvey’s work, even the seemingly simplest of it, “This Is Love” is complicated. Then again, it is a love song.