‘Is This Desire?’ Unraveling The Many Personas Of PJ Harvey

Heaping her pain onto a procession of characters, ‘Is This Desire?’ was the record that set Polly Jean free from emotional bondage.

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PJ Harvey Is This Desire
Photo: Maria Mochnacz

Though Polly Jean Harvey has never stooped to anything so conventional as an “answer record,” that’s essentially what Is This Desire? is. Its origins stem from an intense romantic entanglement with Nick Cave, which ended in 1996 with an abrupt phone call from Harvey. They’d been together only a matter of months, and Cave was caught completely off-guard. “I was so surprised I almost dropped my syringe,” he admitted years later.

The break-up first compelled him, then Harvey, to engage in a bit of back-and-forth “he said, she said” via songs on their respective next albums. Cave quickly came up with “West Country Girl,” “Green Eyes,” and “Black Hair,” and slotted them into the LP he was already making, which would become 1997’s The Boatman’s Call.

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Harvey did things a little differently. Rather than emulating Cave’s literalism – though a tune called “Tall, Skinny Australian Guy” would have been fun – she heaped the pain and disappointment onto a procession of female characters: Elise, Catherine, Angelene, Joy, Leah, and Dawn. Their stories are what shape Is This Desire?.

Listen to Is This Desire? on Apple Music and Spotify.

Released in 1998 between her two biggest guns – the masterly To Bring You My Love and the Mercury Prize-winning Stories From The City, Stories From The Sea – it’s sometimes seen as a transitional record. For that reason, it’s often been overlooked, yet it’s one of her most challenging and heartfelt albums – as acknowledged by a 1999 Grammy nomination for Best Alternative Music Performance.

Desire also earned Harvey her biggest UK single, “A Perfect Day Elise.” Catchily loaded with ringing guitar and looped drums, it peaked at No.25 – enough to land her on Britain’s esteemed music show, Top of the Pops, to perform it live. It’s instructive to compare the stark TOTP performance to the electronic dynamism of the recorded version: the vulnerability exuded on the small screen suggests that she still hadn’t quite achieved closure on the relationship.

Reading between the lines

“I was doing a lot of emotional work [when she began studio sessions in 1997],” she shared on an interview disc that accompanied Desire. Her self-reflection reached the point where she had to abandon the sessions for a while: “I just wanted to stop, and start looking at my life as Polly, rather than my life as a songwriter.” By the time recording resumed in spring 1998, she’d devised a way to convey “life as Polly” without the danger of completely exposing herself.

Little of Is This Desire? is written in the first person; instead, Harvey used short stories by favorite authors for source material, finding characters and situations that mirrored her own. For instance, Joy Hopewell, the heroine of Flannery O’Connor’s Good Country People, was reimagined as the betrayed-by-her-man protagonist of the track “Joy,” and the lyric vibrates with anger: “Joy was her name, a life unwed/Thirty years old, never danced a step.” And God, is that mirrored by the music. Harvey’s bellowing anguish is matched in intensity by a bed of grinding electronic noise, while two tracks later on “No Girl So Sweet,” another wronged O’Connor character, from the story The Life You Save May Be Your Own, sets off a firestorm of guitar-synth distortion.

Adopting electronic soundscapes

Along with the shockingly bleak “My Beautiful Leah,” which melds electro-brutalism and emotional despair, these are the harshest examples of the electronic textures that define the LP as a whole. Harvey had opened herself to the possibilities offered by machine-made sounds after singing on the Tricky track “Broken Homes” (from the trip-hop pioneer’s 1998 album, Angels With Dirty Faces).

“Broken Homes” is pure, midnight-blue trip-hop, and a touch of that genre made its way onto Is This Desire?, most notably on the dreamy, Portishead-inspired “Electric Light.” Also dreamy in their own way are “The Wind” and “Catherine,” written as a pair to honor the martyred St. Catherine of Alexandria, the patron saint of unmarried women. A 14th century chapel in her name still stands on a hill in Dorset, near Harvey’s birthplace, and the whispering loneliness of “The Wind” precisely captures the chapel’s isolation, and the torment of Catherine’s thoughts as she awaits execution by the emperor Maxentius (“She dreamt of children’s voices/And torture on the wheel”). “Catherine,” meanwhile, is set to a percussive pulse that sounds like a languidly beating heart.

The two tracks are deeply shivery, but darkest of all is “My Beautiful Leah.” It’s so grim that when Harvey listened back to it she thought, “This is enough! No more of this! I don’t want to be like this. I knew I needed to get help,” she told The Guardian the following year.

A turning point

“Leah” proved a turning point. She began therapy while continuing to work on the record, and her growing understanding of herself crept onto Is This Desire?. She composed on a keyboard rather than her usual guitar, which affected her process: hunched over a small portable keyboard, she found herself writing “more thoughtfully.”

If her singing sounds different – purer, perhaps – it’s because, instead of making demos of every song at home, then re-recording the vocals in the studio, she transferred all the four-track demos onto a multi-track recorder and used the original vocals on the final versions. The demos for all 12 tracks have just been issued for the first time as a standalone LP, Is This Desire? – Demos.

Harvey has said she finds Desire both difficult to listen to and a source of great pride. Referring to its cast of identity-masking characters, she told the NME, “Whatever I’ve written all comes from inside me and my experience. Whether I write about that in another person’s name or my own, there’s a lot of me in there. Because I finally feel comfortable saying ‘I am Polly.’” More than 20 years later, it stands as the record that set Polly free from emotional bondage.

Is This Desire? is out now and can be bought here.

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