A classic-rock spinster druid in Dr. Marten drag, a demon stewardess on her very own astral plane, Polly Jean Harvey knows she has a great formula, and she doesn’t mess with it on Is This Desire? Her lusty English-farm-girl voice and guitar still trace the fates of glamorously doomed heroines with names like Angelene, Leah and Elise. Harvey begins her tales with lines like “And he was walking in the garden” or “Catherine liked high places,” and she can be trusted not to end them before she piles on the imagery: cold nights, howling winds, abandoned chapels, sex, sin, mysterious lights in the sky and rivers that symbolize something very unpleasant indeed. A less carnally confident singer would fall flat with so much melodrama. But Harvey’s charismatic growl hasn’t failed her yet, and she struts her stray-cat-stuff all over these twelve dark jewels.
Most of the album is muted balladry, revisiting the somber tone of past glories like “Missed,” on Rid of Me, and “Hardly Wait,” from 4-Track Demos. But for all the gothed-up Eurogloom, Is This Desire? is a lot of fun. Harvey makes her deranged fantasies of feminine evil sound like a righteous Saturday night, albeit a bleak and stormy one. “Angelene” is her answer to “West Country Girl,” Nick Cave’s valentine to her on his 1997 album, The Boatman’s Call. Harvey plays a smalltown goddess with the prettiest mouth you’ve ever seen, jeering at God and the devil as just two more menfolk who want a piece of her. She moans her mating calls through distorted electrobeats on “No Girl So Sweet” and turns on her creepiest whisper for “The Wind.” But for all of her fabulous masks, Is This Desire? hits home because it comes down to a very simple sentiment: Harvey wants to know what love is, and she wants you to show her.