The Sweet and Lowdown of PJ Harvey

The Sweet and Lowdown of <b>PJ Harvey</b>
Demonic. Perverse. Toxic. Morose. Brooding. Violent. If the press is to be believed, Polly Jean Harvey is all of the above, a latter-day witch out to convert innocent souls to the dark side. But just as the victims of the 18th century witch hunts were simply strong-minded and independent, so too is Harvey is a woman mistreated, pilloried by critics for her plain-spoken views on sex and romance in the post-postmodern age.

Such is the aura of darkness that surrounds the singer's public persona that I approach our interview with apprehension, a feeling that dissipates upon hearing her voice; a delicate accent rounds off consonants and stretches vowels as if the language was her very own plaything. Far from the oft-tortured utterances that mark her recorded output, Harvey's conversational tone wends its way through the phone line with unhurried ease, as if delivered to an old friend.

Such intimacy is in ample evidence on her new album, Uh Huh Her, a homemade, self-produced recording done at her seaside house in Dorset, England. Suffused with scabrous guitar riffs, closely-miced vocals and aberrant room sounds, it stands in stark contrast to her last outing, 2000's crystalline Stories From The City, Stories From The Sea, the most rigorously polished effort of her career. Asked to compare those two projects, the singer reaches for a spatial metaphor.

"On this one, I wanted to get down to the lower, dirtier stuff again after being quite clean and up high for a while," says the native of Yeovil. "When I listen to the Stories record, it feels high up — full of melody and sparkly-sounding. A lot of this [new] record is very low down, very bassy, very earthy, very round-sounding, which is where I naturally gravitate. I've always been drawn to exploring the lower, dirtier side of music."

Critically-lauded though Stories may have been, Harvey avers that its recording was especially challenging, for it found her suppressing her love of blues music, the form she holds dearest. But on Uh Huh Her, the singer freely explores the blues in its many shades, whether in the oceanic guitars and one-drop beat of "The Life and Death of Mr. Badmouth" or the hushed lakeside acousticism of "The Pocket Knife."

"The blues is in my blood," says Harvey, whose family once counted the late Rolling Stones keyboardist Ian Stewart among its closest friends. "I grew up listening to blues music, so any record that I've made that hasn't been influenced by it has been a fight to get away from it. Now, I'm no longer trying to smother it. I felt like I could let it run rampage here because the nature of this record is so very homemade."

Given Uh Huh Her's bluesy feel, one might expect the album's lyrics to hew closely to that form's stereotypically gloomy outlook. But as Harvey carefully explains, the very act of expressing one's self through music implies that the healing process has already begun, a fact that undermines our perception of blues music as a strictly sorrowful genre. Still, on a day when most of her interlocutors have honed in on a single sombre lyric from the new album ("shame is the shadow of love"), the singer despairs that her music may never be understood.

"I find it hard that people take my work as always exploring the shadowy side of love," says the singer, whose songs are rarely autobiographical. "If you take that line as an example, it was written more for the sounds of the words than because of what the words literally mean. I think people often come to the songs with a particular idea of what kind of artist I am and they'll listen to it in that way. I'd rather they approached the music without any prejudices."

To that end, Harvey included two slyly humorous songs on the album; with its woozy refrain and sprightly handclaps "Who The Fuck?" is a lo-fi grrrl-pop anthem for grown-ups, while "The Letter" finds the singer sardonically recounting an epistolary courtship in the age of omnipresent email.

"I love the humour in those songs," she says. "I find those to be really funny songs but a lot of people I'm talking to seem to be missing out on that, so I end up thinking, ‘Oh, I didn't do that very well because it was supposed to be quite a funny song.' People always ask me, ‘You're angry. Why are you so angry?' And it's like, ‘I'm not angry at all! I'm just having fun! Can't you see I'm having fun?'"

With that, Polly Jean Harvey lets out a roar, her giggles confirming that she's having a very good time indeed. And who are we to disagree?