“Angelene,” a somber monologue sung from the perspective of the “prettiest mess you’ve ever seen,” may be the most inauspicious opening track in PJ Harvey’s catalogue. She plucks an awkward chord on her guitar and assumes her character, describing the life of a prostitute with penchants for Salinger and pining for a man she’s never met, 2,000 miles away. It’s part elegy and part soliloquy, and the way she gilds the tune’s stuttering rhythms with church organ and hopscotching piano makes it hypnotic — a perfect introduction to the relative downtempo nature of her fourth LP, 1998’s Is This Desire?
Now, more than two decades later, Harvey has released a demo for the song as part of her ongoing reissue series, and it shows a new side to the track. It’s more personal, more intimate, more disturbing, more plaintive. Gone are the organ and piano parts, as well as the sloppy intro chord (did she add that to play up the “prettiest mess” line?). Instead, she plays along to a gentle drum machine line, similar to the trip-hop elements that define Is This Desire? The sparse arrangement makes her character sound more vulnerable throughout, and more desperate in the chorus as she declares with unparalleled conviction that her savior lives on some far away coast — if only she could find him. When the rhythm falls away for her to sing, “Dear God, life ain’t kind,” it’s as if the rug was ripped from beneath her leaving her with just that hard-earned confession, and when she howls, “It seems so far away,” later, it’s as if she’s screaming into an abyss of disappointment.
Is This Desire? never gets quite the same shine as Harvey’s other Nineties albums, probably because it’s sandwiched in her discography between her devastating mainstream breakthrough, To Bring You My Love, and the brilliant Stories From the City, Stories From the Sea. She filled both of those LPs with brutal honesty and simmering, sometimes extraverted rock arrangements, where Is this Desire? was quieter and more subtle. (The way she whispers “The Wind” on Desire sounds like EVPs from another realm.) But hearing this raw version of “Angelene” suggests that her initial outlook for Is This Desire? was closer in line with Stories From the City, making the rest of the forthcoming Is This Desire? – Demos (out January 29th along with a reissue of the original record) all the more curious. Harvey has always been a private artist, and to see her go full exhibitionist with these albums of demos has been fascinating. Since the electronica-heavy production of Is This Desire? makes it feel like her most cloistered album, this offering will be the most curious in the series.
The only thing that would make it any better would be if she were to dip deeper into the catalogue and include some of her B sides from around the time in the release. “Nina in Ecstasy 2,” which appeared on the flipside of the “Wind” single, is one of the most moving and greatest songs of her career, even if it interpolates Middle of the Road’s “Chirpy Chirpy Cheep Cheep.” And what of the 15-second “Angelene (Research Hook)” that backed up the original song’s single and isn’t even on YouTube? Perhaps she’s saving those for some later reissue or perhaps it’s just part of the mystery.