No music video embodies that mad sheela-na-gig angst of female come-hitherness that is Polly Jean Harvey better than “Send His Love To Me,” from To Bring You My Move, Miss Misery’s subversive, maddeningly apocalyptic, densely metaphoric meditation on all things female. Harvey is very scarily connected to her primordial self, and her corporeal, existential obsessions with sex and God have fueled some of the best—if not the best—albums of the last 15 years. From the raw and sinister Rid Of Me to her not-so-little book of Bible stories, the mystical Is This Desire?, Harvey can do no wrong. That said, I prefer Polly Jean’s 50ft Queenie (you know, that king of the world) to the Miss Independent strumming her joy with her fingers on Stories From The City, Stories From The Sea and, now, the comparatively less consistent Uh Huh Her.
Harvey collaborates here with both Flood (To Bring You My Love, Is This Desire?) and John Parish (the lyrically playful and undervalued Dance Hall At Louse Point), but Uh Huh Her seems to suffer as a result; this may be the first album of Harvey’s career where the production—a seductive combo of home-on-the-range sounds and electronic flourishes—outshines the performances. Remember Harvey—lonely and barefoot—emerging from the desert prison of the “Send His Love To Me” video? Maria Mochnacz’s stripped-down vision was truly that of “a phoenix out of fire flames.” On the more biblically tame Uh Huh Her, the desert metaphors crop up (lassos, fires, spurs), as do Harvey’s trouble with colors, and since she’s more “blue” than “red” this time around, it’s easy to envision a cool and collected Harvey plucking her guitar and singing songs in the wild, wild west for anyone who’ll listen.
On the playful “The Life And Death Of Mr. Badmouth,” Harvey’s terse delivery complements the song’s methodical guitar strumming—both suggestive of a finger being wagged—but while it’s clear that Harvey is trying to have fun, her performance is too controlled. Ditto the lovely “Shame,” which showcases her Chrissie Hynde vocal talents but feels like a deliberately pretty interpretation of something you’d find on To Bring You My Love; when she barely breathes “I’d jump for you into the fire,” the proposition is neither happy nor sinister. “Who The Fuck?” is ostensibly about Harvey’s relationship to her hair, but you can’t ignore the subtext: She may be trying to get rid of a gray one, but she’s also trying to exorcise a man (her lurching delivery is priceless). Harvey has forever traded in metaphors, but she lays it on thick when she strains to compare a relationship (or turning a man on, whatever) to sending a letter on the album’s first single, the dull “Letter.” Harvey can do better than this, but she salvages it in the end with her signature wail—the stamp on the letter if you will.
Sprinkled throughout the album are a series of sweet but disposable interludes (since the album isn’t exactly tiring, these asides don’t feel like necessary medicine): two instrumentals (“The End,” with its easy-breezy harmonica, and the sea sounds of an unnamed track nestled between the album’s final two songs) and the Patti Smith-esque non sequitur “No Child Of Mine.” Equally filler-some is “It’s You”; the opening sounds are certainly creepy, but in the end they’re more evocative of the sinister journey Harvey’s character makes than the singer’s un-sarcastic delivery and overly precious, simple lyrics. Far better are “Pocket Knife” and “Cat On The Wall”: The former is a bit overwrought but damn if Harvey can’t save an entire song with as little as a giddy four-word chorus or a subversive rhyming pattern (here the clincher is “My pocket knife has a shiny blade”); while the latter seemingly pits two Polly Jeans against each other: an older, ostensibly wiser PJ and the 17-year-old in her head screaming pint-sized “turn up the radio”-s.
Despite its lack of thematic cohesion, Uh Huh Her is immensely playable. True to its title, the eros-centric “Slow Drug” sneaks up on you like a good high (here, some of Harvey’s favorite words converge, though the headlights aren’t blinding this time, simply burning), and her trembling vocal on “You Come Through” is suggestive of a small creature trying to poke through the shell represented by the track’s delicate, tribal-sounding percussion. With every listen, their intricacies unravel. But it’s the final two tracks that linger longest in the mind. Like Leonard Cohen, Harvey trades in an elaborate mythos founded on serpentine connections between sex and the divine. On “Desperate Kingdom Of Love” (Harvey’s “The Stranger Song” if you will), the girl from “Send His Love To Me” has grown up, and on “Darker Days Of Me & Him,” hope springs eternal from subversive, complex rhyming patterns and a predictably killer hook. I could listen to the song forever.