Like MTV Unplugged does PJ
Rory McInnes-Gibbons
15:18 22nd February 2021

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The world changed forever the day Stories From The City, Stories From The Sea won the Mercury Prize. And not just for PJ Harvey. Although Harvey became the first solo woman to win the award for her fifth studio album, events earlier in the day overshadowed the ceremony. Then touring in Washington D.C., the band awoke to witness the Pentagon in flames opposite their hotel. What would soon became known as 9/11 was unfolding in front of their eyes. 

Things would never be the same again, yet Polly Jean still accepted the award from Jo Whiley on the phone, saying: “It’s been a very surreal day - this comes at a time when I’m feeling pretty stunned by everything. Obviously I’m absolutely shocked, this whole city is in shock. Myself and my band are involved in all that…It’s hard to take in.”

‘Surreal’, ‘shocked’ and ‘stunned’ are words normally used to describe winning an award of £20,000 and besting the likes of Radiohead and Elbow. Only here PJ caught the mood of a nation and a whole culture under threat. Released a year earlier, Stories From The City, Stories From The Sea became an evocation of a lost epoch before the Twin Towers and the War on Terror would dominate the new millennium.

The album was inspired by the artist’s six-month sojourn in New York and combined tales of hedonistic nights with the coastal retreat of Poole in Dorset, where the band recorded. This central paradox gave the album its lilting title and kept listeners hopping between the visceral energy of those rugged riffs on opener 'Big Exit' and the enigmatic lyricism of songs like 'Horses In My Dreams'. Harvey concocted a toxically-enticing view of NYC through the lens of its nighttime antics, blending the shadier stories ('The Whores Hustle and the Hustlers Whore') with the euphoric release of those stolen moments of ephemeral beauty ('We Float'). 

This is an often overlooked period in the musical history of a city then over a year away from the release of The Strokes’ first single. But when Harvey was there, the post-punk revival was lurking in dive bars underneath the skyscrapers of Manhattan and buried beneath the Brooklyn Bridge.

Perhaps it is a reflection of this ellipsis in New York’s music scene that despite her six-month transatlantic trip, Thom Yorke was Harvey’s most prominent collaborator alongside stalwarts Rob Ellis and Mick Harvey. Yorke offered his rawest of vocals on the pared-down track 'The Mess We’re In'; a tender love note between two of the most important artists of the past three decades. The demo for this track (sadly sans Thom) has been made available to stream before the main release.

When reviewing a reissue or demos of a modern classic, often the first question can be: why now? Given the current circumstances, record labels are looking for ways to monetise their artists with no touring on the horizon for the foreseeable future. So, cynically, the reasons for re-releasing Harvey’s first five albums on vinyl are commercial. It is therefore important to ask whether this particular reissue contributes anything new to the artist’s untarnished back catalogue.

Perhaps the first concern for fans will be the absence of PJ on the production. Long-term collaborator, Head, who worked on songs for Harvey’s sessions throughout the 1990s and more recently collaborated with Bat for Lashes, takes on production duties. For those familiar with the album, there are no real surprises in the vinyl edition and so the relevance of the reissue relies on the quality of the previously unreleased demos available on vinyl, CD and to stream.

The demos often find PJ’s vocals at their intoxicating best with that combination of waifish melancholy and untamed power. Having previously left us with the sparse and anaemic throbs of 1998’s 'Is This Desire?', opener 'Big Exit' stripped away any folksy varnish for a return to elemental rock best served three ways with guitar, drums and bass.

The demo version of the song reflects the same formula although its transitions are less polished allowing for a greater intensity and prominence of that rich bassline. While certain songs transcend any great level of innovation ('Beautiful Feeling'/'This Is Love'), there' are some surprises. On 'A Place Called Home', Head breathes new life into one of PJ’s safest singles with its strange and captivating rhythms taking the song into a whole different direction.

It comes in on a hooky trip-hop beat worthy of Bristol’s best before that iconic acoustic guitar cuts through the intoxicating mix with its blissful simplicity. A similar formula is used on the totemic closer - 'We Float' - but to less effect as the song falls flat under the metronomic beat of the drum machine.

The pre-release 'This Mess We’re In' is probably the greatest disappointment. Despite PJ’s efforts on both primary and supporting vocals, it drags without Yorke and suffers under the pressure of expectation lacking the original’s urgency. The album reaches its apogee on 'One Line' where Harvey’s voice echoes around the eardrums as though she is in the room with you.

This re-release is like MTV Unplugged does PJ, and that proximity and confidentiality will appeal most to fans, though it is sadly lacking on the release as a whole. It is a welcome insight into a mid-career PJ at the first of her two Mercury zeniths, but, overall, lacks the earthy vitality we are accustomed to appreciating in one of Britain’s finest musicians.

Stories From The City, Stories From The Sea - Demos arrives 26 February.

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Photo: Press