A celebration of the LP, the long-player, the album music format. Reviews, recommendations and discussion.

Undeclared Masterpiece #2: Is This Desire? – PJ Harvey (1998)

After a couple of rather lukewarm reviews I thought it was about time for another post in the Undeclared Masterpieces section. To be clear, these are albums which I feel are unfairly overlooked pieces of work, either because they are overshadowed by an artist’s other work or just because they are not well known enough. But all the records in this section are flawless examples of the LP and should not be missed.

It’s fair to say that PJ Harvey is not a musician whose work is overlooked. The only person to win the prestigious Mercury Prize twice, first in 2001 for Stories From The City, Stories From The Sea, then again for 2011’s mighty Let England Shake (not to mention her two other previous nominations for Rid Of Me and To Bring You My Love) she is quite rightly considered a songwriter of considerable merit.

PJ Harvey for me sits alongside artists such as Bowie and Bjork inasmuch that their work is constantly evolving. Each new release is completely different to the last and as such is met which genuine anticipation. From the early rock sound of Dry and Rid Of Me, to the astonishing ghostly creaking of White Chalk Polly Harvey always surprises.

In an interview a few years ago she was asked about her fellow Mercury nominees and what she thought of their records, her answer was simple……. “I haven’t heard them”. This could be mistaken for arrogance, but instead it shows that PJ Harvey lives within her own musical space, she isn’t influenced by musical trends or fashions and is therefore free to create something entirely her own.

Such a varied body of music can lead to a rather a strange reception for each record. Often an album which is met with universal praise is followed by one that, as far as those-who-are-supposed-to-know-about-these-things are concerned, is far weaker. The Mercury Prize winning Stories From The City was followed up by the largely ignored Uh-Huh Her, whilst her highly praised White Chalk was followed up with A Woman A Man Walked By, a collaboration with John Parish which I have often heard referred to as ‘unlistenable’.

Well I don’t know what everyone else is listening to but these lesser thought of albums are, in my opinion, career highlights. Uh-Huh Her was a stripped down joy after the glossy production of Stories, and A Woman A Man Walked By was like a spitting, feral beast compared to the angst-y restraint of White Chalk.

And so to my Undeclared Masterpiece. In 1995 PJ released what is largely considered to be her breakthrough record, To Bring You My Love. Such was it’s reception that expectation for it’s follow up was high. But as this is PJ Harvey she didn’t record To Bring You My Love vol 2, instead she made Is This Desire? which was met with far less enthusiasm than it deserved.

Lyrically there are similarities between this record and it’s predecessor, many of the tracks focus on women or are told from a woman’s point of view, and many of these women are unhappy…..the weary sounding prostitute in ‘Angelene’ or the lonely Catherine in ‘The Wind’.

But musically it is coming from a different place entirely, a mix of echo drenched ghost stories and almost industrial sounding anger. This seems to be the record on which Polly moved away from the guitar and started experimenting with other instruments, most noticeably the piano. This gives parts of the record a much softer quality not previously seen in her songs. There is also the emergence of more electronic sounds lending yet another aspect to her work ( I would actually love her to make a full on electronic album).

There are so many highlights on this record. ‘The Wind’ is based on the tale of Saint Catherine who was the patron saint of spinsters and sounds like a musical plea to this lonely lady. I grew up near to where PJ Harvey grew up and have visited St Catherine’s chapel “high up on the hill” which was the inspiration for this song, and it is incredible how closely she has managed to captured the atmosphere of this isolated chapel through her music.

Another favourite is ‘Joy’. A loud, crunching piece of reverberating electronica. I’ve seen this performed live only once, in a show that PJ Harvey was performing without a band, just her on stage alone, yet somehow she managed to create a noise so layered and loud, it was quite an extraordinary experience.

There isn’t a single weak track on this album, from the achingly beautiful piano ballad ‘The River’ to the outright rock of ‘A Perfect Day Elise’, it never dips below anything other than perfection.

It sounds like a very melancholy experience, but Is This Desire? does end on a positive note, the closing title track isn’t a question full of defeat rather a question full of hope, after all that has gone before for these characters…..finally Is This Desire?

The Sky Lit Up*
The Wind*
My Beautiful Leah*
A Perfect Day Elise*
Electric Light
The Garden
The River*
No Girl So Sweet
Is This Desire?

* = standout tracks


4 comments on “Undeclared Masterpiece #2: Is This Desire? – PJ Harvey (1998)

  1. angrickerson
    March 9, 2013

    PJ Harbey is my favorite of all time. Love this record too. Whenever I make someone a mixed cd I include Angeline as the first song. I think it’s the perfect first track (side A track 1 if you’re a High Fidelity fan).

  2. angrickerson
    March 9, 2013

    harbey… omg
    Oh and she has said that she is influenced by other musicians, the Who influenced the sound of Let England Shake and she has been quoted in a few magazines as a big fan of Marianne Faithfull and Patti Smith and a bunch of other artists who I won’t ramble about

    • allaboutthealbum
      March 9, 2013

      Definitely agree with you about the influences of individual musicians, though she has often said she is not influenced by what is going on in music at any one time, musical trends I suppose would be the best way of putting it.

      Have you heard the record she did with Marianne Faithfull? Before The Poison? It’s very good, a lot of it written by PJ so at times it feels like a PJ record with Marianne on lead vocals…..which can’t be bad!

      • angrickerson
        March 9, 2013

        no I haven’t heard of it! Will look it up pronto. Thanks!Totally agree, she is influenced by individuals but not trends. Love her. I have her concert posters and albums framed in my music room…..

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