Following the deep dives into the songwriter’s early work and the dark Is This Desire?, Matthew Barton continues his exploration of PJ Harvey’s reissues with a look at her Mercury Prize winning 2000 album Stories From The City, Stories From The Sea and its newly shared demos
“I wanted everything to sound as beautiful as possible,” said Polly Harvey of her fifth studio LP, Stories from the City, Stories from the Sea, in an interview with Q magazine. “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, Stories from the Sea was the reaction. 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. I want it to be my beautiful, sumptuous, lovely piece of work.”
Two decades on, the sumptuous Stories is the latest in Harvey’s ongoing reissues project, accompanied by a collection of its demos. It has a towering reputation in the Harvey catalogue, having won the first of her two Mercury Music Prizes in 2001, and it has become something of a fixture in ‘best albums’ lists. Where Is This Desire? married unsettling atmospherics with disquieting experimentation (just take a listen to the suffocating misery of “My Beautiful Leah” and “Joy”) often to darkly beautiful effect, Stories is the sound of openness – strident vocals, chiming guitars, harmonies, layers of melody. But crucially, it never forgoes her customary inventiveness for banal commerciality.
The notion of Harvey trading artistic, creative ingenuity for commercial success is, especially with the hindsight of her now almost 30-year career, preposterous; Stories may have a reputation as Harvey’s most accessible record, but are such moody jewels as “Beautiful Feeling” and “Horses In My Dreams” commercial? Doesn’t “Kamikaze” have more in common with her brutal first two records, 1992’s Dry and 1993’s Rid of Me? If it’s pop, as she later said, it’s “pop according to PJ Harvey.”
New York City looms large in Stories, from its genesis in the city where she filmed The Book of Life with Hal Hartley, to its myriad lyrical references (“on a rooftop in Brooklyn,” “I’m in New York,” “when we walked through Little Italy”). But it’s curious that, in fact, much of it was also written and initially recorded at Harvey’s home in Dorset and then produced for real at Linford Manor in Milton Keynes in March and April 2000 – about as un-New York as you can get. Working with her long-time collaborators Mick Harvey and Rob Ellis as the core trio of musicians, the Stories demos are, as with the previous instalments in this reissue series, routinely fascinating. This time they’re captivating for just how ‘demo-y’, for want of a better word, they are – yet how comprehensive. That’s the story of these Harvey demo albums – they clearly indicate that the bulk of these songs, arrangements and all, were all there from the beginning.
But where Is This Desire? was built almost entirely on top of those original demo tracks, Stories’ demos are more often than not true alternates. You can certainly detect parts of the originals that were then loaded into the multi-tracks and built upon (the gorgeous chiming guitars of “Good Fortune” were all there from the start, with Harvey’s Patti Smith-meets-Chrissie Hynde vocal re-recorded to become a little sleeker), but then you get something completely leftfield like the charmingly rustic “A Place Called Home,” with its drum machine pattern and more rudimentary presentation.
Harvey told the LA Times upon the album’s release in October 2000 that “it kind of feels like a combination of every album I’ve made so far rolled into one.” And it’s true that there is the balance between ferocious rockers (“Kamikaze”), slow-burning blues (“Horses In My Dreams”), and murky atmospherics (“Beautiful Feeling”) – but there’s also a newly lush, panoramic melodic and production style. “We Float” shimmers and opens out beautifully, “Good Fortune” is pop perfection, and “You Said Something” finds Harvey in classic songwriter mode. She told Hilton Als in Interview magazine that “I wrote the songs in a different way. I went back to writing songs just with guitar and voice, and the songs had to be strong enough to work at that level. I wasn’t relying at all on equipment, I wasn’t writing in the studio, I was just purely writing in time, if you like. I think that’s quite a good basis for writing strong songs.”
But Harvey was wary of the ‘return to roots’ tag – as she told the LA Times, “I don’t see it as [that]. It’s very different musically to the first couple of albums. It’s very melodic, and it’s much rounder and fuller. The earlier albums were very black and white in some sense, very extreme. Melodically, this is much more sophisticated than those records.”
Immediately, “Big Exit” is a big bolshy clarion call, all pulsating rhythm, shouted vocals, and, true to her word, layers of subtle guitar melody. It is soaked with the energy of the city, the violence and danger, the brutality and the beauty. The same can be said for “The Whores Hustle and the Hustlers Whore”, with its ominous chugging guitars and a shrieking vocal coda like sirens racing through the nocturnal city streets. The demos of these two songs are stellar, entirely drum-less, focusing only on the innate rhythm of Harvey’s guitar and a voice that rings out with a new confidence. In the latter, she sounds like Siouxsie Sioux at points, all gothic decadence and glamorous doom. At one moment, the additional guitar overdub drops out yet the song loses none of its power or urgency. If anything, the sheer raw beauty of this demo threatens to surpass the studio version.
The absence of drums and indeed drum machines on all but a couple of the demos never detracts from their rhythmic power. “Good Fortune” is a song strong enough to thrive in any incarnation, with its earworm melody, multiple hooks, and a vocal that is a little more unbridled than on the finished version. (I adore how she phrases the word “hungover” in this version.) It’s the kind of song that really shows you just what Polly Harvey has at her disposal – she has always been a master at keeping the listener on their toes, but such brazen confirmation that, if she chooses to, she can write a perfect pop song and sing it in this kind of way, remains almost shocking.
Some of the demos have a raw brutality that recalls her earlier work, namely the cut nerve that is “Kamikaze”, here with some alternate lyrics, and the beautifully simple yet effortlessly commanding “This is Love,” where the demo rests on the tension between her echo-drenched vocal and its steely power chords.
But there’s also a breed of song here where it’s more about mood than anything else. “One Line” manages to be both melodic yet bare, memorable yet amorphous, and the stripped-back demo is no different. “Horses In My Dreams” loses some of the lushness of its arrangement and instead gains more of a resigned beauty. “Beautiful Feeling” and “This Mess We’re In” are Thom Yorke-less, and it’s the latter that is perhaps expectedly most changed, becoming somehow even more intimate and plaintive with just Harvey’s voice and guitar (and distant metronome). “I’d long been interested in the idea of somebody else singing a whole song on a record of mine, to have a very different dimension brought in by somebody else’s voice,” she said. “It adds so much dynamic within the record to have this other character coming in. I get tired of my own voice. It’s nice to hear somebody else’s.” But in this instance, two decades on, it’s nice to hear just Polly’s.
Much has been made of the lyrical change exhibited on Stories that reflects the headiness of early love; this was rumoured to have been prompted by a relationship with Vincent Gallo. “I don’t think that true, all-encompassing love for another comes along very often,” she said. “It’s a wonderful thing that should be treasured.” And there is love all over Stories – from the intimate conversations described in “You Said Something” and “This Mess We’re In”, to the direct address to an enigmatic “you” all through the record. It’s romantic (“your boy’s smile, five in the morning / looked into your eyes and I was really in love”), beautiful (“and I draw a line to your heart today, to your heart from mine, one line to keep us safe”), and sexy (“I can’t believe life’s so complex, when I just want to sit here and watch you undress”). Contrasted with the raw power of the music, it’s an intoxicating sentiment.
While it may be reductive to label Stories and its title as a reference both to Harvey’s temporary metropolitan residence and her rural English seaside home (she herself said the title refers more to the Jungian notion of “the sea being the subconscious and the land the conscious”), it’s one of the most intriguing aspects of the record. Dorset is such a key element in Harvey’s work, from the inspiration struck by the stone carvings she saw on local architecture (“Sheela-Na-Gig”) to the folkloric tales she explored in Is This Desire? (“The Wind”), that a ‘New York’ album could seem an unusual prospect. Much of the tautness, and energy, in the album seems to emerge directly from these contrasts, this new experience, the desire for something open and fresh and different. Her decision to try and write simple and effective solid ‘songwriter’s songs’ strengthens the fabric of the idea.
Harvey told Hilton Als that she “wanted to make a record that was very lush sounding, highly produced, recorded well, with clean, crisp, direct sounds. Where I think in the past I was much more interested in debasing sounds as much as possible and making them certainly not lush and pleasant, just the opposite.” With Stories, she certainly succeeded.
The demos, meanwhile, are an intriguing insight into the bones of these songs before the lushness, before the production, before the crispness. It’s alternately moody and light, dark and open, melodic and ominous. (Listen out too for the stock hip-hop drum machine loop and Casio riff on which she somehow built “We Float”). Stories, for all its reputation, is sometimes not the go-to record for Harvey fans who like their Polly a little less (comparatively) ‘glossy’. Her mentor Captain Beefheart didn’t particularly care for it, and Harvey herself later said the sound of the record is “not where [her] heart is.”
But the demos are something a little different. While previous demo albums in this series show Harvey’s nous as an arranger and the strength and clarity of her artistic vision, Stories’ demos are more of a companion piece – yes these are the same songs, but they have a different feel, a different vantage point. And that is what makes them such an integral addition to the Harvey canon. Whether Stories is up there with your favourites or not, there’s no denying that, once again, it shows PJ Harvey doing what she does best – something bold, different, and unlike what she produced before.