I know it’s impolite to put it this way, but sometimes getting laid can really be good for a person. On the recorded evidence — with no claim to any lowdown on Polly Jean Harvey’s actual private life, a mystery as closely guarded as the whereabouts of Saddam Hussein and the formula for Coke — that’s the secret of PJ Harvey’s Stories From the City, Stories From the Sea, which even she allows is the happiest-sounding album she’s ever made. What she daren’t suggest is that it may also be the best.
The shift is first apparent in the music, which is, not to beat around the bush, fast. Way more easeful than the tightly wound, dynamically extreme bluesism of the career-launching Dry and Rid of Me, it’s also way livelier than 1995’s critical triumph To Bring You My Love, where Harvey’s desperate carnality took a sharply metaphysical turn, and 1998’s rhetorical question, Is This Desire?, the answer to which was, maybe. While her austere sonic signature remains, the vocals are discernibly more relaxed, the tunes welcoming and even expansive. Listen for shadings on the guitar attack, too — piano, organ, marimba, is that bandoneon? The album’s an up from the first strums of “Big Exit,” unquestionably the most rousing opener of her career.
Granted, maybe you’ll smell shtick even so — our Polly, getting archetypal with the elementals again. After all, “Big Exit” does meditate painfully on human suffering. But the song’s aesthetic thrust is all in the two lines of euphoria her ruminations try to rationalize away: “I’m immortal/ When I’m with you.” That’s why it’s so rousing. As she reports in the redolently titled “This Is Love”: “I can’t believe that the axis turns/On suffering when you taste so good.” Long blessed with uncommon talent and success, Harvey can finally accept her “bad fortune slipping away.”
Harvey has always been sex-obsessed. But there are better things to do with sex than obsess about it — enjoy it, for instance. And though the love affair the album describes or invents may end badly — e.g., the furious “Kamikaze,” or the lovely “The Mess We’re In,” sung mostly by Radiohead’s Thom Yorke — at least it sounds like a true affair, rather more full-bodied than “Robert De Niro, sit on my face.” Harvey and her beau ideal dance and get drunk, walk through Little Italy and sit looking at the skyline from a Brooklyn rooftop. Maybe someday they’ll fulfill the dream of the finale: “But one day/We’ll float/Take life as it comes.” Or maybe she’ll attain that state of grace with someone else. Whatever happens, this album will be there to remind her how happiness feels.