Originally Written and Posted at Epinions.com on 4/22/09.
The big critical acclaim and success of 1995's To Bring You My Love was a huge surprise for PJ Harvey as changed her persona from guitar-wielding alt-rock chick to an androgynous, make-up wearing, alt-rock queen. Despite all of the attention she did, the tour and promotion for the album overwhelmed her as she took a break to work on various projects. One of them was a collaboration with her musician friend John Parish for the 1996 album Dance Hall at Louse Point which received a decent reception. Harvey at the time was going through a difficult period dealing with depression which became the basis for her fourth studio release entitled Is This Desire?
Written mostly by PJ Harvey with production by Harvey, Flood, and Head along with additional work from Marius De Vries. Is This Desire? is an album that has Harvey explore the world of electronic music with minimal guitars to emphasize on moods based on keyboards and other electronic devices. Featuring contributions from John Parish, Bad Seeds multi-instrumentalist Mick Harvey, and from Harvey's old trio in the early 90s, drummer Rob Ellis. It's an album that explores Harvey's dark mood as it deals with life's difficulties with Harvey playing some of the instruments with help from her collaborators. While it's the least accessible work among her solo recordings, Is This Desire? is still one of PJ Harvey's most interesting albums of her career.
Opening the album is Angelene, a ballad with dreamy, washy guitars performed by PJ Harvey as she sings in a somber, melancholic vocal. With a smooth, bouncy rhythm led by Rob Ellis' sputtering drums with John Parish' piano and Mick Harvey's simple, morose arrangement. The song reveals Harvey singing in a growling state with sad, doomy lyrics filled with words that are inspired by the blues as it sets the stage for the album. The Sky Lit Up is an electronic-inspired track with additional production and mixing from Marius De Vries with siren-like keyboards, charging guitars, and fast, hard-hitting rhythms. With Harvey singing in a raspy vocal with eerie lyrics about a dreary town with Harvey singing wailing falsetto on parts of the song.
The album's second single The Wind which is a blues-inspired song that mixes Marius De Vries' electronic production of smooth, pounding electro-bass beats, tapping snare drum machine beats, droning bass lines, and Harvey's whispering vocals. With Harvey singing in a falsetto-style vocal on top of her whispering vocals, it's a song filled with imagery-laden lyrics about the earth. Featuring symphonic arrangements of strings and electronics, it's one of the record's most unique cuts. My Beautiful Leah is a mid-tempo, fuzzy electronic track with thumping, warbling bass line and sputtering beats with Harvey's hollow vocals. With its creepy lyrics about a woman with nightmares, it's a song that delves into Harvey's state of mind with Flood's unique, atmospheric production. The first single A Perfect Day Elise is a track with mid-tempo, metallic-like electro beats and washy guitar shimmers that play to Harvey's raspy, hollow vocals. With lyrics delving into paranoia and horrors, it features a great chorus with Harvey's soothing vocals accompanied by a synthesizer.
Catherine is a haunting, ominous track led by soft, thundering beats with melodic, washy guitar riffs. With Harvey's smooth, eerie vocals with lyrics about a woman desperate to escape from her dark existence as it's a rich, eerie track led by Harvey and Parish's melodic guitar work. Electric Light is a soothing yet unconventional ballad led by an electronic bass accompaniment to play to Harvey's vocals filled with heartbreaking, somber lyrics. With a soft drum accompaniment from Rob Ellis, it's the most unconventional track that Harvey has done which includes her singing in a dreamy, falsetto vocal. The Garden arrives with sputtering, pounding beats arranged by Rob Ellis with a droning bass line as Harvey sings in a somber vocal about a garden that two lovers used to embark as they hope to meet again. With John Parish's rich piano accompaniment, it's a song that is enchanting with a narrative that is mesmerizing in its description.
Joy, co-written with Rob Ellis, is an electronic-heavy track with layers of beats from soft, sputtering drum n' bass style to metallic snare fills that includes a droning bass line. With Harvey's growling vocals and haunting lyrics about death, it's a song that shows Harvey's mesmerizing vocals with Ellis' unique musical arrangements in this experimental cut. The River is a piano ballad led by thumping rhythm and smooth bass line as Harvey sings somberly about a river that serves as a place of escape. Featuring a trumpet solo by Terry Edwards in the middle of the song, it's a wonderful track that revels in Harvey's vocals and unique arrangements.
No Girl So Sweet is an upbeat track with swirling electronic arrangements and cymbal crashes that features bouncy beats from Rob Ellis' drums and charging guitars. With Harvey's howling vocals filled with dark, angry lyrics, she goes into a wailing vocal yelp for the song with driving guitar riffs that goes into chaos which includes a screeching violin performance from Richard Hunt. The album closer is its title track, a mid-tempo, bluesy track with soft pianos and melodic guitars with Harvey singing in a soft, raspy vocal filled with somber lyrics of desperation and confusion. It's a fitting closer to the album as plays to its melancholic mood.
Released in late September of 1998, the album drew mixed reviews from fans and critics. Some praised it for its experimentation while others felt it lacked any memorable songs in relation to To Bring You My Love. Harvey however, considered the album a personal favorite despite the difficulty she was going through at the time. While she did a tour for the record that was more low-key than in previous tours, the record still didn't fare well commercially though it would provide her a chance to take a break before making an official return in 2000.
While it's probably her least accessible album (with the exception of Dance Hall at Louse Point with John Parish), of her career. Is This Desire? is still a fascinating yet adventurous album from PJ Harvey. While it's a record that doesn't have a lot of memorable songs with its focus on mood and sound textures. It's one that can't be overlooked in which, the record showcases Harvey's willingness to take risks while delving into the late 90s electronic music scene without betraying her musical roots. In the end, Is This Desire? is an excellent, adventurous album from PJ Harvey.
PJ Harvey Reviews: Dry - Rid of Me - 4-Track Demos - To Bring You My Love - Dance Hall at Louse Point (w/ John Parish) - Stories from the City, Stories from the Sea - Uh Huh Her - The Peel Sessions 1991-2004 - White Chalk - A Man A Woman Walked By (w/ John Parish) - Let England Shake
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