PJ Harvey’s Stories from the City, Stories from the Sea could have been called Stories About Falling in Love in New York. On her last two albums, To Bring You My Love and Is This Desire?, Harvey chose to speak of love through dense mythological metaphors. Now she speaks of love in a more straightforward manner, with new personal experience and bare honesty. Rob Ellis’s quiet piano blends beautifully with Harvey’s confident desperation on “A Place Called Home,” her lyrics tinged with uncertainty: “One day there’ll be a place for us.” The final track, “We Float,” stands apart from the rest with its ultra-personal poetry: “This is kind of about you/This is kind of about me/We just kind of lost our way/But we were looking to be free.” These two tracks in particular display sophisticated melodic structures, absent from much of the rest of the album. The dissonant “Horses in My Dreams” and the simplistic and cryptic “Beautiful Feeling” almost sound like demo-takes of unformed songs which normally would have (and should have) been discarded.
The title of “Is This Love” seems to speak volumes as Harvey proclaims, “This is love that I’m feeling.” The insincerity of her tone makes it seem as if she doesn’t believe a single word of what she’s saying. It’s only when she croons a sex-drenched “Come on out, come on over, help me forget” that you realize she’s not feeling love at all, but lust. The question remains whether it’s an intentional juxtaposition or not. “One Line” is one of three tracks that feature the talents of Radiohead’s Thom Yorke. Aside from playing keyboards on the track, Yorke’s vocal contribution is appropriately minimal (implicative yet even less prominent than Michael Stipe’s backing vocals on Kristen Hersh’s “Your Ghost”). The haunting “This Mess We’re In” is a signpost of parting lovers. With Yorke’s particular command of language and phrasing (and Mick Harvey’s spacey keyboards), the track sounds more like Radiohead featuring PJ Harvey than PJ Harvey featuring Thom Yorke.
Stories is Harvey’s love poem to New York (there are no less than 10 references to the Big Apple’s boroughs, bridges, buildings and such). She seems to have set out to purposely make a New York album and its flaw is in its all-too-obvious intention. The New York described on Stories, though not exactly the city that adopted Jim Morrison and Patti Smith as its own, is certainly as deformed and glamorized as it’s always been. So why is she so horrified by its people’s inherent sadness in “The Whores Hustle and the Hustlers Whore”? In the end, the one song in which she attempts to explore New York’s underbelly fails to dig very deep.
On the other hand, “You Said Something” perfectly captures the intense diversity of New York with a Manhattan rooftop conversation: “We lean against railings/Describing the colors/And the smells of our homelands.” Harvey’s view of the skyline is enough to distract her from her lover’s words: “You said something that was really important,” though we’re never told what was said exactly. Stories is decidedly stripped down, with a quality akin to a 1970s 4-track demo. The opening track, “Big Exit,” is a ferocious war-cry which all but proves that Harvey probably would not exist without trailblazers like Patti Smith and her gritty, gender-defying brand of rock n’ roll.