Four years after her last album, PJ Harvey has abandoned the elegant, Mercury Prize-winning slickness that made Stories From the City, Stories From the Sea such an anomaly in her edgy and provocative oeuvre and frightened long-time fans who remembered the raw, poisonous wit of her striking 1992 debut, Dry. Her transformation from angry young girl to elder stateswoman à la Elvis Costello must have scared her, too; Uh Huh Her dispenses with the processed guitars and balladry that led many to assume she was resigning herself to MOR radio and VH1. But this sonic reduction is a deceptive ploy. These songs, like the tracks from the previous album, are mostly wise yet lovelorn ruminations rather than the weirdly wonderful wordplay and raucous, proto-White Stripes blues rock that defined her first single, "Sheela-Na-Gig."
When Harvey literally tries to revisit past glories, the results sound awkward and out of place. "Who the Fuck?" sounds like an outtake from Rid of Me with its Albini-like wall of electricity and heaving, sassy chorus, while "Cat on the Wall" whirls inside a shoegaze haze of ambient guitar effects. In contrast, the folk blues on "The Pocket Knife" strikes a middle ground between her grunge days and her present, as she strums a guitar and shakes hand percussion to illustrate her worldview. "Honey put your needle down/How did you feel when you were young," she sings, "'Cause I feel like I've just been born/Even though I'm getting on."
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Far from self-aggrandizing, Uh Huh Her is about self-acceptance, an acknowledgement of Harvey's stylistic and musical limitations. That doesn't mean she can't write good songs anymore. In addition to "The Pocket Knife," there is the brief acoustic anthem "No Child of Mine," a track one wishes were much longer than a minute, and "The Life and Death of Mr. Badmouth," a sludgy yet tempered putdown of shit-talkers. Uh Huh Her is as compelling an album as she has ever done, but it's miles away from the awe-inspiring mystery that was the Gothic romance of To Bring You My Love. When she strips her records of artifice and conceptual pomp, all that's left is great music and not much else.