In terms of quantity and quality of music produced during the decade, Polly Jean Harvey can make as much of a claim to being most significant music maker of the Nineties as anyone. But while all five of her previous albums are astounding aesthetic artifacts, it's hard to put them together and hear a real person at the core. That's why Stories from the City, ostensibly a song cycle documenting her recent move to New York, is such a shock: Harvey has never before sounded this casual and open, her music this lived-in.
The startlingly lovely music here doesn't sound as though it was inspired by old blues or new punk, feminist iconography or Gothic ballads, fables or legends. It sounds as if it was inspired by that great conversation she had with a new beau last night on some Brooklyn rooftop. This is her Patti Smith record, a album of street poetry buoyed by arty, simple New York garage rock that could have been left over from Horses or the Velvet Underground's Loaded.
Not that everything has changed. Like Van Morrison, another semipopular star from across the Atlantic who worshipped American blues, Harvey still is a sonic obsessive, prone to lose herself in the rapture of her own music. This is the most grounded she's ever been, yet she can't keep from slipping into the mystic. On “Good Fortune” she makes the lyric “When we walked through Little Italy/I saw my reflection come right off your face” sound like the most mysterious and spiritual thing imaginable. Her vocals are as reckless and dynamic as ever, but there is a relaxed warmth and intimacy that is new to her music. You can hear this on “You Said Something” -- simply the most romantic record I've heard all year -- in the surprised contentment she conveys and in her assurances of devotion on “One Line.”
The back-to-back shot of “Kamikaze” and the carnal “This Is Love” is the most pulverizing music Harvey has crafted since Rid of Me, but while her music has always been erotic and bruised, the release offered this time is joyous. “Does it have to be a life full of dread?” Harvey asks herself on the latter song, lost in the confusion of newfound happiness. “I wanna chase you round the table/want to touch your head.”
“Things I once thought unbelievable in my life have all taken place,” Harvey announces on “Good Fortune,” and this is indeed the most optimistic and openhearted music of her life. Harvey has had other triumphs, to be sure, but never one as unexpected as this.
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