Ever since laying herself bare on the first PJ Harvey album, Dry, Polly Jean Harvey has been struggling to find a pose within which to hide. There was the bravado of "50 Ft. Queenie" on Rid of Me, then the flamenco drama of To Bring You My Love. Now we're supposed to think of Dance Hall at Louse Point as a collaborative project with multi-instrumentalist John Parish, a longtime scene-maker in Harvey's hometown of Yeovil, England, in whose band, Automatic Dlamini, Harvey once played in her pre-PJ days.
In fact, with her incredible, unmistakable voice, Harvey rules this record — although it's still a minor outing for her. Here she experiments, singing words she has written for someone else's music, trying on voices like hats. Harvey finishes "That Was My Veil" with a soprano trill, albeit a slightly sharp one. She's an ironic songbird (excruciatingly so on the cover of the Peggy Lee hit "Is That All There Is?"). On "Taut," the album's winning burst of Sonic Youth-style noise, she moans and rumbles like a guitar stabbed with a screwdriver.
Lyrically on Dance Hall at Louse Point, Harvey picks up where she left off on To Bring You My Love — more cryptic fables like scenes from a foreign film. I wish they had subtitles. Harvey still has a bad case of the blues, but where on Dry she was "Sheela-Na-Gig," showing off her insides, she's now frustratingly enigmatic, whispering her confessions like a guilty Catholic, disguising them with biblical allusions and sub-Nick Cave Gothic imagery ("City of No Sun," "Urn With Dead Flowers in a Drained Pool"). "Rope Bridge Crossing" describes a relationship that promised support but in which she was treacherously betrayed. Wronged love songs have become Harvey's stock in trade; no one sings the word lover more often, and with more passion and terror, than she.
Playing Tom Verlaine licks and favoring lots of percussion sounds, Parish comes across as a thinker (he's been a college teacher by day) and tinkerer. All this fucking around, in turn, brings out Harvey's pretentious side. Her gift for riffs and melodies is overcome by her art-rock affinities. Now more than ever, those Captain Beefheart influences and Kate Bush comparisons make sense. Appropriately, Dance Hall will be the basis of a dance piece touring Britain next year, with Parish and Harvey fronting a five-piece ensemble.
But I wish that Harvey would just pick up her guitar and form a new band. Because that is her best pose of all.