By Gilbert Garcia
Early in his career, Elvis Costello made a famous declaration that all his songs were inspired by either revenge or guilt. If you tried to make a parallel - and admittedly oversimplistic - argument about PJ Harvey, you could say that her music always gets back to two themes: lust and shame.
If her most recent album, the polished Stories From the City, Stories From the Sea, plunged headlong into the former, it doesn't take long for her newly released seventh album, the curiously titled Uh Huh Her, to explore the latter. "Shame is the shadow of love," Harvey sings with tired resignation.
The consensus on Stories From the City was that it represented Harvey's rapprochement with happiness: a mature celebration of contentment. In that light, Uh Huh Her looks like a 180-degree turn, a descent into the dark anguish that characterized early masterpieces like 1993's Rid of Me and 1995's To Bring You My Love.
This theory ignores the fact that Stories From the City's table-setting opening track, "Big Exit," found Harvey and her lover in full-on Bonnie and Clyde mode: "This world's crazy/give me the gun." The song has the feel of an erotic death wish about it, but the driving four-to-the-bar beat camouflages the fact that its euphoria is wrapped in danger.
Much has been made over the years about Harvey's fascination with the blues, but her great musical accomplishment has been taking the haunting menace, the hellhound-on-my-trail desperation of the Delta's greatest products and putting it in her own sonic vocablulary. Even with her frequently masterful slide-guitar playing, she's never been as literally indebted to the blues as Jack White, for example, but her music feels more like the blues than his does.
For Uh Huh Her, Harvey recorded at home with drummer Rob Ellis, playing everything else herself. As a result, she rediscovers her love of the guitar, and the raunchiness of her idiosyncratic riffs recalls the mesmerizing power of her first two albums.
In an interview with Exclaim! Magazine, Harvey says she wanted to regain the blues underpinning that she temporarily abandoned for the pop appeal of Stories From the City. "The blues is in my blood," she says. "I grew up listening to blues music, so any record that I've made that hasn't been influenced by it has been a fight to get away from it. Now I'm no longer trying to smother it."
Beyond her obvious talent, Harvey is unique because she's built a sturdy career while revealing almost nothing about her personal life. While someone like Courtney Love - an avowed Harvey worshiper - can't be heard over the din of her own attention-getting psychodramas, Harvey carries no such baggage. Thirteen years after the release of her debut single, "Dress," we're not any closer to unlocking the mysteries. Over that time, this skinny, provincial, painfully shy English girl has built one of the finest catalogs in rock.
Back in 1993, at her confrontational peak, Harvey made her case that violence and eroticism were all part of the same confusing experience, when she pointedly sang, "I'll make you lick my injuries." These days, that message has mutated into "I'm not like other girls/you can't straighten my curls."
All of Harvey's albums have their own distinctive identities, and yet any one of her discs - with the possible exception of 4 Track Demos - could serve as a fitting representation of her work for the unschooled. Uh Huh Her might not be the definitive Harvey experience, but it does its job - it keeps the mystery alive. •