It’s one in the morning, sometime in 1999, and Polly Harvey and her man are on a rooftop in Brooklyn. Swooning over the Manhattan skyline across the river, she sings, “I see five bridges, the Empire State Building/And you said something that I’ve never forgotten.”
Make no mistake, Stories From the City, Stories From the Sea is PJ Harvey’s wild-love-in-New York record. That song, “You Said Something,” is one of many on the 2000 LP that bubble over with adoration for a significant other, with the city as its backdrop. For the first time on a PJ Harvey album, Polly’s glasses were rose-tinted and her mood frisky; not only that, she channeled her energy away from polarizing rawness, and into big-chorus arena-rock.
Arena-rock? New York? Her artistry has always taken her to unexpected nooks, but who could have foreseen PJ Harvey going radio-friendly? And who could have pictured this product of rural Dorset turning into a Manhattan hipster and writing a record about it? Just check the album cover: wearing shades at night, she’s crossing a neon-lit downtown street, cool as Patti Smith.
Yet it was still Harvey – just not as the world knew her. And this different version of her won the 2001 Mercury Music Prize, snagged two Grammy nominations, and sold 1 million copies internationally. But how did it happen?
Having made two of her most emotionally taxing albums in To Bring You My Love (1995) and Is This Desire? (1998), Harvey was adamant that her next album would be full of beauty and light. As she began to consider Desire?‘s follow-up. she spent a month in New York, acting in the Hal Hartley film The Book Of Life. The city struck her as the perfect place to write, and she returned for a longer spell in 1999. The stars aligned: New York “energized” her, she was newly in love and the songs flowed.
As the ‘Sea’ half of the title implies, it wasn’t entirely composed in “the city;” some songs were written in her native Dorset, while others were inspired by a camping trip in the California wilderness. Digging deeper, an intriguing back-story emerges. The chilly electronic outing Is This Desire? (written in the aftershock of an intense relationship with Nick Cave) had been so desolate that friends had persuaded her to go into therapy. She came to understand that low self-esteem had hindered her personally and as an artist, and when she began to compose the next record, one consideration was paramount: that it not sound anything like Desire?.
“Having experimented with some dreadful sounds on ‘Is This Desire?’ and ‘To Bring You My Love,’ where I was really looking for dark, unsettling, nauseous-making sounds, ‘Stories From The City’ was the reaction,” she told Q magazine in 2001. “I thought, ‘No, I want absolute beauty. I want this album to sing and fly and be full of reverb and lush layers of melody.’” Recording in the English countryside near Milton Keynes with longtime associates Rob Ellis and Mick Harvey, she achieved it.
Instead of repelling mainstream listeners with abrasiveness, Stories drew them in with fullness and vibrancy – but delivered as only PJ Harvey could. The feverish voice and the lyrics’ erotic neediness on the rumbling guitar-rocker “This Is Love” were utterly Harvey. So was her choice of guest vocalist on three tracks: Thom Yorke, perhaps the only British male able to deliver her lyrics as shatteringly as she does herself.
His presence meant that listeners got two indie-rock gods for the price of one, and their keening duet on “This Mess We’re In” would be remarkable even if it didn’t feature Yorke singing the most un-Yorkean line imaginable: “Night and day, I dream of making love to you now, baby.”
“I’d long time been an admirer of his voice – a very unusual and beautiful voice he has,” Harvey explained in a 2000 interview. “So I wrote this song with him in mind and sent it to him along with the two other songs he sings backing vocals on, ‘One Line’ and ‘Beautiful Feeling.’”
If we’re being picky, however, “absolute beauty” occasionally stretches it a little. Not every track is as buoyant as “You Said Something” or the equally joyous “Good Fortune,” where she jauntily sings about getting down in Chinatown and sounds remarkably like a hip-swinging Chrissie Hynde.
Some songs are downright frazzled, including the opener, “Big Exit,” a clawing, twisting thing that revisits the grungy angst of 1993’s Rid Of Me, but with reverb. You have to admire the courage she showed in making it the record’s first track, because it forces the listener to picture Polly shaken to the core by a fear that may or may not be groundless (“I see danger come/I want a pistol, I want a gun/I’m scared, baby/I wanna run.”). The penultimate “Horses In My Dreams” is also tough – the central acoustic guitar riff is slowed to a limp strum, and Harvey’s vocal rasps and grinds.
Mainly, however, Stories skewed toward real happiness. Even the demo versions – now available on vinyl as Stories From The City, Stories From The Sea – Demos – have a skip in their step.
One of her definitive qualities as a musician is that Harvey is never static. Reflecting on Stories from The City, Stories From The Sea in 2008, she said, “I wanted to try writing lots of perfect pop songs.” Having achieved that in spades, she’s always been too restless (and modest) to bask in the glory of it. But the rest of us can. While we’re at it, we can also appreciate the fact that it was the first album by a female solo artist to win the Mercury Prize: Polly’s perfect pop record wasn’t just great, it was a history maker.