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Darker Stories

 

PJ Harvey: Uh Huh Her

Island, 2004

Rating: 4.1

 

 

Posted: June 8, 2004

By Laurence Station

PJ Harvey's last album, 2000's Mercury Music Prize-winning Stories From the City, Stories From the Sea, tracked a transatlantic romance from its euphoric beginning to its resigned, philosophically blasť end. Uh Huh Her, her follow-up, is the dark-winged shrike to Stories' glorious bird of paradise: it inverts its predecessor's bright, clean production for a raw, stark sound, just as Harvey pulls back Stories' effusive vocal delivery, twisting that album's often exuberant emotional arc to more familiar territory: inward, reflective and occasionally brooding.

That inner-directed bent is aptly reflected in Uh Huh Her's dynamics: Although Harvey enlists Evelyn Isaac for backing vocals and brings back Stories' mixer, the oddly monikered Head, this is clearly a one-woman production. Save for the moody percussion provided by longtime collaborator Rob Ellis, Harvey plays every instrument (from crunchy guitar to delicate piano), eschewing intricate band dynamics in favor of her strongest instrument -- her voice.

That approach makes for one of Harvey's most emotionally blunt records to date. "The Life and Death of Mr. Badmouth" finds her lamenting a former lover's many faults ("Baby, I just think you're out for what you can get / Your badmouth has killed off everything we had"). The yearning, wounded "Shame" finds her unable to shake a former lover's hold over her, while "It's You" deals with a fatalistic infatuation ("When I'm not with you my dreams are so very dark / When I'm not with you I dream of my hair falling out / When I'm not with you I walk dark tunnels of my heart / When I'm not with you everything comes apart").

But Harvey wisely tempers the gloomy introspection with some welcome pulse-quickening cuts. "The Letter" overflows with a sexually charged potency ("Take the cap / Off your pen / Wet the envelope / Lick and lick it"), colored by a near-manic sense of urgency ("Time is running out"). The spiky, disposable "Who The Fuck?," meanwhile, is a wire-edged kiss off ("I'm not like other girls / You can't straighten my curls"). Harvey also dabbles in a little pre-murder balladry with "The Pocket Knife," a strikingly sketched look at an unwitting child bride who promises bloodshed if she's forced to stand at the altar ("White material will stain / My pocket knife's gotta shiny blade").

Harvey's usually keen sense of craft falters on occasions: "Cat on the Wall" is a conventional sounding rock song saddled with subpar lyrics ("Come night, I'm gonna step outside / Take a walk, I'm gonna clear my mind"), while the percussively interesting "You Come Through" is hamstrung by less than inspiring wordplay ("Come on my friend / Drink to good times / Golden wishes / To your health and mine"). But if Uh Huh Her doesn't rise to the level of Harvey's best work, it does possess a grim, unvarnished beauty; a beauty that, while it might repel a few of the fans she gained with Stories, capably rewards devotees of her earlier, unburnished and uncompromising works.

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 Ratings Key:
 5.0: A classic
 4.0-4.9: Stellar work
 3.0-3.9: Worthwhile effort
 2.0-2.9: Nothing special
 1.1-1.9: Pretty bad
 0.0-1.0: Total disaster

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