Following on from last year’s reissue of her early records and demos, PJ Harvey has just released an expanded version of her 1998 album Is This Desire? Matthew Barton revisits the record and its newly released demos, exploring the mind of a songwriter in artistic turmoil.
“And there was trouble taking place…”
In early 1997, Polly Jean Harvey was gearing up to record the songs that would form the follow-up to her 1995 LP To Bring You My Love. Within a few weeks, she had given up on them. “I wasn’t in the right place,” she later told Q Magazine. “It was a low time for me so I put the brake on. I said, ‘I don’t want to do these songs while I am like this.’ When I came back to the songs in 1998, they changed quite a lot. An important part of the creative process is knowing when it is the right time. The songs weren’t ready and nor was I.”
More than two decades on, the album that became Is This Desire? is the latest entry in Harvey’s 2020-21 reissues campaign, with an accompanying album of demos to boot. Out of a period of darkness came one of the key records of Harvey’s career, a beautiful, strange, queasy work of art. Where Dry and Rid of Me made virtue of Harvey’s brutal guitar playing and abrasive style, To Bring You My Love began to complement her punkish ferocity with slow-burning gothic blues and unsettling, atmospheric production.
Is This Desire? takes it even further, replete with delicate production details, the songs rely as much on mood and texture (sometimes more so) than traditional structures. Of course the guitar is central, but so too are industrial drum machines, subtle electronics, mournful piano, and disquieting sub-bass. The effect is one to keep the listener off-balance; for every song of velvety, elegant beauty (“Catherine”) there’s another of claustrophobic desolation (“Joy”), and for an occasional verse/chorus jewel (“Angelene”) there’s an experimental mood piece (“My Beautiful Leah”).
Yet somehow they all work together. I have always thought of Is This Desire? as a collection of short stories with different but interlinked characters – there’s Angelene, “prettiest mess you’ve ever seen”; Catherine de Barra, who leaves the narrator’s heart “stinking”; St. Catherine who “liked high places, high up on the hill… a place for making noises like whales”; the cloistered Joy, who at “30 years old, never danced a step”; the troubled and absent Leah, whose last words were “if I don’t find it this time, then I’m better off dead.”
Harvey told The Sunday Observer that she “wanted to write for [her]self, about [her]self. Like someone looking in on me.” Perhaps these characters, as much bearing the influences of the literature she was absorbing (including the stories of Flannery O’Connor), are stand-ins for her own state at the time, metaphorical other selves.
Harvey has always made plain that a lot of her work is fiction – no she didn’t drown her daughter, for instance – but part of the dark beauty of Is This Desire? is how personal it sounds. She later said: “The years between ’95 and ’97/’98 was probably the hardest time of my life. That album came out of that period, so it was a very difficult album to make, quite a painful album to make, and still not one I can listen to very easily at all.”
To add to its personal impression, it’s also filtered through the atmosphere of her home county of Dorset and its landscape and culture, from the photos displayed in the artwork to the folklore of St Catherine’s Chapel as explored in “The Wind”. Dorset looms large, or rather, looms low.
Is This Desire? – Demos is, like the previous To Bring You My Love – Demos, a fascinating insight into Harvey’s process. Unlike Dry – Demos and the 4-Track Demos that served as the early versions of what became Rid of Me, the demos for To Bring You My Love are captivating for showing just how intact Harvey’s vision was from the beginning – some of the final album tracks were lifted from the demos, and the arrangements were faithfully replicated (live drums replacing drum machines, strings replacing the sounds Harvey got from her new Yamaha SK20).
Is This Desire? – Demos is even more extreme in this regard, with many of the final tracks simply built on these demos, using the initial tracks as foundations. Some – like “My Beautiful Leah” and “Electric Light” – are almost indistinguishable from the final album versions. The demo vocals often resurface on the final versions, as do many of the guitar parts. It’s a testament, really, to the clarity of purpose Harvey had with this material, even with a year-long interruption in recording sessions.
Some of the most intriguing recordings are the ones where key elements are stripped away – “The Wind” is even spookier without Marius de Vries’ production and programming with that snaky, hypnotic guitar underpinning Harvey’s whispery intonations. It makes me think of Harvey in St Catherine’s Chapel on a dusky evening, playing that elemental, burbling riff. “Catherine,” a song I always found incredibly sad and made sadder by the mournful organ at its climax, is arguably even more bereft with just the naked guitar chords. “The Sky Lit Up” is raw as raw can be with just its heavy, gloomy chords and drum machine.
“Joy” is almost intact, with its pounding, relentless industrial rhythm, but the alternate vocal is even more pained and full of despair. The irony of “Joy” is how hopeless and lost it sounds, matching the vivid lyric of a woman whose innocence grows to suffocate her. It’s almost unbearable. Songs like “Joy” and the haunting “My Beautiful Leah” give a clue to Harvey’s state of mind at the beginning of these sessions. She later told The Observer of “Leah”: “I listened back to that song and I thought ‘No! This is enough! No more of this! I don’t want to be like this.’ Because it was all so black and white, and life just isn’t black and white. I knew I needed to get help. I wanted to get help.”
“A Perfect Day Elise,” meanwhile, is markedly different even with the vocal intact; as with much of the material here, it’s built on a drum machine pattern but the distorted bass makes it wonderfully ugly and barren, compared to the beautiful melodrama of the finished piece, all shimmering guitars and subtle production notes that contribute to its disconcerting, anxious disposition.
“The Garden” and “The River” are the most different from their finished counterparts, eschewing piano in favour of simple, moody guitars and with completely different vocal takes. The beautiful, dreamlike alternate-Eden tale that is “The Garden” is yet more intimate and arguably more stunning with the simplicity of its naked arrangement, while “The River” forgoes its mournful piano and muted horns for murky guitars and soft vocals, a barely-there whisper.
Is This Desire? was a slow-burner for me, much like the slow-burning nature of its material. For all the moments of abrasion (the distorted vocals in “No Girl So Sweet,” “Joy” as a whole), there’s a bare simplicity to so much of it, and such a subtleness of touch, that it becomes the kind of album that burrows into your soul over the years. The accompanying demos show the workings of an artist in the midst of a creative peak, personal troubles or not. It’s the sound of an artist who simply has to make this music – ‘for her, about her’. It’s subdued, beautiful, raucous, unsettling, serene, graceful, chilling. It’s PJ Harvey.
And let PJ Harvey herself have the final word: “It was quite a fight for me to put it out, a lot of people were very disappointed in it. People in the business, people in the record company that I work with were wanting something different to what I gave them. I was adamant that this is the way I wanted it to be and I don’t regret it at all. I think it’s probably one of my strongest works, really…. It’s probably my favourite record that I’ve made because it had a lot of guts. I mean, I was making extremely difficult music, experimenting with techniques I hadn’t used before and not really caring what other people thought about it. I’m quite proud of that one.”