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PJ Harvey’s Stories from the City, Stories from the Sea 20th anniversary

Polly Jean Harvey’s “big” album turns 20 and we look at how it’s fared all these years later.

Not since David Bowie has an artist chameleonised their image like Polly Jean Harvey.

Kicking against ’90s trends, Harvey maintained a unique, subtle swagger, shape shifting from the post-riot grrrl effect (Dry), the suave androgynous femme fatale (Rid of Me, To Bring You My Love), the quiet modest girl from the sticks (Is This Desire?) to the chic city socialite she portrayed during Stories from the City, Stories from the Sea.

Over the past two decades, these shape shifting themes have remained a constant for Harvey.

While the half of the songs from Stories from the City, Stories from the Sea—her sixth album—were written between Europe, London and her home in Dorset, the remainder were penned in New York, where Harvey lived for seven months prior to recording the album and which proved the main thematic backdrop.

Recorded at Great Linford Manor in Milton Keynes, Stories from the City, Stories from the Sea was co-produced alongside Harvey with long-time collaborators, Mick Harvey and Rob Ellis, with Victor Van Vugt mixing the album at Fallout Shelter in the March/April of 2000.

Neither word nor note was wasted, with the results being the most direct songs Harvey had committed to tape and twenty years on, that fact still remains.

Where previously Harvey‘s messages were masqueraded in metaphors and mystique, for the most part, Stories from the City, Stories from the Sea contained themes that jumped out at the listener with a new immediacy.

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Harvey‘s songwriting has always suggested that she is a keen observant of those around her and while the topics of love dominated Stories from the City, Stories from the Sea, her eternal drifter tendencies shone through more than ever.

“Every song I’ve written feels like a love song. It’s an endless thing to explore,” said Harvey in an interview with Triple J‘s Richard Kingsmill in January 2001.

The luscious echoes of Big Exit kick things off and immediately the larger polished sounds are prominent in a tale reminiscent of grabbing your soul mate and disappearing off into the sunset in search of a new world, as Harvey sings “Baby baby/Ain’t it true/I’m immortal when I’m with you.”

The West Country blues-rock swagger of lead single, Good Fortune, possesses similar themes and twenty years on, it doesn’t feel as though it’s aged a day after it was conceived from the studio vaults.

So too, A Place Called Home. A meticulously arranged number with piano that sparkles like the morning sun from a lake, working alongside an array of distinctive harmonies that flicker through the mix. It is perhaps the most underrated moment on Stories.

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One Line and Beautiful Feeling feature Radiohead‘s Thom Yorke on backing vocals. One Line is filled with a warmth we wouldn’t have previously associated with Harvey‘s songs. Her sauntering verses about remembering first kisses and a beguiling chorus where Harvey parts with poetic vigour about drawing lines to hearts.

Beautiful Feeling has a medieval aesthetic attached to it, possessing the kind of slow-core laments Low made a living from early in their career.

The Whores Hustle and the Hustlers Whore still stacks up as one of Harvey‘s finest songs. A bolshie blues-rock waltz, it contains a jarring groove and an equally striking chorus. Harvey‘s clever use of metaphor is the song’s greatest exploit with a concoction of political potency stirring within the complexities of love.

Again featuring Yorke, This Mess We’re In is one of the finest duets of the decade and a song that many would suggest is the centre-piece to the album. Ultimately, it’s a battle of falsettos and Harvey matches Yorke at every turn.

You Said Something is a stream-of-conscious sunset lust-song in every sense, while once again Kamikaze sees Harvey adopting those spiky blues-rock tones in a cut that ducks and weaves with anxious rhythms as her bristling shrieks soar above.

Then there’s This Is Love. Harvey‘s stab at what some would consider a dumb rock ditty. Its lyrics, free, honest and very much projecting the narrative of what love feels like. In essence, it’s not dumb at all, just real.

Taken from Stories from the City, Stories from the Sea linear notes

Horses in My Dreams is a rich subtle balladeering number with hushed pianos that slowly builds into something truly majestic.

Rode a horse around the world/along the tracks of a train“. Along with The Whores Hustle and the Hustlers Whore, it’s as mystical as Harvey gets.

While sonically the latter cut is a homage to her gritty punk roots, Horses in My Dreams is Harvey‘s most fragile moment on the album, rivalling the haunting aesthetic from Is This Desire? – her darkest record released at the time.

With fractured keys that leads into a beautiful melodic chorus, We Float is the song of a drifter. A song truly indicative of Harvey at the time given her retreat to New York in search of a muse, it simply reflects its namesake.

The same could be said for Wicked Tongue. Perhaps the last greatest secret/hidden song ever made. Taking the piercing grooves from The Whores Hustle and the Hustlers Whore, Wicked Tongue is a ham-fisted rocker that ends the album emphatically.

Stories from the City, Stories from the Sea gained mostly positive responses from critics and fans alike.

While some claimed it was her best record yet, others were slightly more cautious on the superlatives, suggesting Harvey had moved too far away from her raw lo-fi roots in favour of hi-fi sheen.

One could argue that it actually tapped into Harvey‘s punk ethos. After all, no one expected her to go in this direction of more user-friendly sounds, particularly when Harvey herself felt disillusioned after Is This Desire?

In what was one of the toughest periods of her career, Harvey was left grappling with the intersections of commerce and art and struggling with all the tedious endeavours required of an artist signed to a major label.

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Given these circumstances, Stories from the City, Stories from the Sea, was undoubtedly a left-field move which, like her chameleon-like image, was actually Harvey‘s greatest strength as an artist. It still is. Someone who is unbending, with little regard for current trends. That’s punk in every sense.

The move was a boon to reach a wider audience and would prove vital in the years ahead. On the back of Stories from the City, Stories from the Sea, Harvey toured Australia for the first time as a part of the 2001 Big Day Out festival. She returned at the end of that year for a headlining tour and has toured the country many times since.

The album went on to win the Mercury Music Prize and Harvey has since become the only artist to win the award twice, also with 2011’s landmark album, Let England Shake.

Twenty years on, Stories of the City, Stories From the Sea occupies the top end of Harvey‘s discography and paved a vital path towards the next period of her career. It was and still is her “radio-friendly” album, no question, but that’s not to downplay its significance. Big Exit, Good Fortune and The Whores Hustle and the Hustlers Whore would undoubtedly end up on a PJ Harvey best-of.

All career artists try their hand at that “big record”. Most fail and inevitably fade into obscurity. With Stories of the City, Stories from the Sea, Harvey didn’t come close to failure. True to form, she continued to shape shift and break boundaries and this album was yet another perfect example of that.

By Simon Kirk

Product from the happy generation. Proud purple bin owner surviving on music, books and LFC. New book, Welcome To Charmsville, available from all major vendors.

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