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Polly Jean Harvey's Glorious 'Sturm-Und-Drang'
on May 27, 2006
Finally, two years after Polly Jean Harvey hit the road in support of her most recent album Uh Huh Her, we get the long-awaited, official PJ Harvey live DVD, and the great news is it's excellent. Polly sets up the premise of the project right off the bat - she wants it to resemble a "patchwork quilt" of what life is like being in a rock band on the road, and to capture the messy, crazy, ragged feel of the whole whirlwind experience. To that end, Harvey's longtime music-video collaborator Maria Mochnacz does a terrific job of interweaving off-the-cuff backstage moments and practice sessions with live concert sequences. The DVD is generous to a fault at sparing time to chat with Harvey's endearingly scruffy bandmates; the resulting viewing makes for a strange and goofily warm family affair, as we watch Harvey's merry lot of musical vagabonds trot around the globe from gig to gig and bash out Harvey's gloriously dramatic and uncompromising, oftentimes despairing but never less than elating blues-rock.
With the sixteen songs selected for full inclusion here, Harvey and Mochnacz have done an admirable and mostly first-rate job of presenting the `total Polly Jean musical experience' for old-school fans & newcomers alike. Personally, I would've been fine with skipping some of Harvey's better-known tunes like `Meet Ze Monsta' off 1995's To Bring You My Love LP and `A Perfect Day Elise' from 1998's Is This Desire? LP, and focused on more of her lesser-known material; but with a discography as marvelously expansive as Harvey's, it's borderline impossible to completely satisfy one's desires for an ideal DVD setlist. I was lucky enough to see Polly & Co. play at the First Avenue music club in Minneapolis, MN on the opening night of her 2004 tour, and I wish Mochnacz might've tossed in a few more curveballs on the DVD, like the extraordinary live version of the blues classic "Shake Your Hips" which Harvey performed that evening. But at least we're fortunate enough to finally get the first official release of Harvey's scathing rock dirge about romantic rejection, "Uh Huh Her," which actually never made it to the final tracklist of the album proper (at the time, Harvey thought it sounded "too much like what people expected me to sound like").
Old standards like `Dress' and `Harder' sound better than ever, punched up and breathed full of new life by Harvey and her more-than-game band. The songs from Uh Huh Her come off terrifically as well - the sinister `It's You' is that album's sister to the equally forboding `Working For The Man' from To Bring You My Love. `Who the F**k?' is Harvey's own hilariously foulmouthed `Louie, Louie,' a tossed-off, bring-down-the-house, gutter-rock singalong. `The Darker Days of Me And Him' is a movingly mournful epic ballad about the painfuls lessons of past romances - although its placement smack in the middle of the DVD is a little quizzical, especially considering Harvey's very best full-on rock song from the latest LP (and quite possibly her best song ever), `The Letter,' is saved for last. In my opinion, Harvey has never written a song as immediately catchy, witty, melodically infectious or full of totally shameless romantic abandon as `The Letter'; over a twitchy guitar riff and martinet drum beat, she coyly tosses out deliciously X-rated innuendos like "your beautiful pen / take the cap off" and "wet the envelope / lick and lick it," and then literally takes the song to musical nirvana, wailing like some deranged banshee in heat, "IIIIIII waaaaaaaaaaaant you!!!!" Despite the corrosive (and somewhat over-intentional) romantic cynicism that pervades the majority of the Uh Huh Her album, it's at moments like this that you know you're in the company of a completely unabashed and utterly hopeless romantic.
There are some wonderful surprises on the DVD: `My Beautiful Leah' from Is This Desire? comes off much better live than on record - dirtier, slinkier, sexier (of course, Polly Jean vampishly prowling the stage in her tight short skirt and glow-in-the-dark high heels does nothing to diminish the sultriness). Harvey's performance of `Catherine' from the same album is fantastic - a stunning and haunted take on the aftermath of a tragic love affair (much rumored to be Harvey's quasi-ode to the singer/songwriter Nick Cave after the dissolution of their reportedly stormy & short-lived romance). Harvey daringly takes the P.O.V. of a man romantically jilted and left obsessively & destructively caught between total spite and lovestruck longing for his ex - "Catherine De Barra, you've ruined my thinking / I gave you my heart, you left the thing stinking / `til the light shines on me, I damn to hell every second you breathe" - and then, astonishingly, she does a 180-degree turn and closes with "oh my Catherine, with time I'd have won you / with guile I'd have won you." It's songs like this which suggest there may be no living songwriter more skilled at exploring and evoking (some might say excavating) the contradictions of the human heart than Polly Jean Harvey.
Admittedly, I'm a bit saddened there isn't more emphasis in this DVD on material from my all-time favorite PJ Harvey album (and one of my own personal top 10 favorite albums of the last 20 years), 2000's Stories From The City, Stories From The Sea LP. We get the blistering rock of that album's opener `Big Exit,' but that's all - no `Good Fortune', no `This Mess We're In,' no `You Said Something.' Granted, it's perfectly understandable considering what Harvey was going for with her latest album and this DVD: in the generous supplementary interview included here (really a documentary on the making of the Uh Huh Her LP), Harvey explains how she's thrived on thematic extremes throughout her career, and that the best way for her to keep things creatively vital and fresh is to veer from one extreme to the other. In previous interviews she's described how she fully intended to go from a "beautiful" album to an "ugly" album - and since Stories was the prettily-produced, genuinely romantically-uplifting one, the intentionally predetermined path of Harvey's career basically mandated that Uh Huh Her had to be the darker and murkier and unsettling follow-up. (Still, Stories' monstrous, take-no-prisoners rocker `Whores Hustle and the Hustlers Whore' would've fit in perfectly with this DVD's sonic bombast.)
It may be a shame to some that this DVD - ostensibly the only official DVD that PJ Harvey will ever release - captures her at a moment in her career when she seems intent on creating almost solely within the ever-so-slightly-contrived emotional space of romantic doom, gloom and `sturm und drang,' rather than the passionate and wholly un-ironic personal and romantic happiness of her 'Stories' masterpiece. (Uh Huh Her is certainly passionate, to be sure - as are all of Harvey's records - but it's by and large the passion of "hell hath no fury like a woman scorned," written and performed by an immensely talented yet momentarily unswervingly-cynical rock'n'roll Dorothy Parker.) Perhaps Harvey's next album will return her and her listeners to a musical space of emotional self-acceptance and fulfilled romantic longings and a basic, intrinsic joy of living life. Until then, the most important facts of the matter are: A. Polly Jean Harvey is a truly legendary songwriter and performer who rocks like few other female musicians, let alone musicians of either gender, have EVER rocked; and B. sometimes all she or we really need to reach that beauteous state of audience-performer bliss is a few power chords, a banshee's wail and the furious onstage stomp of glow-in-the-dark high heels.