Polly Jean Harvey lets you read her like a book. She doesn't hide, doesn't lie. That's why you love her so much. If you climb into the car when she's at the wheel, you're in for the duration. She might roll up the windows and turn on the heater just to make you sweat. Or veer into the path of a cement mixer just to watch your fingers tear into the dashboard. But here, there's no backing out, no surrender. You've just got to hold on until the spinning and the squealing and the screaming stops -- and she drops you off.
Of course, when she does that, you almost immediately start begging for another spin.
Four years is a long time to wait between PJ Harvey releases. Her last outing, Stories From the City, Stories From the Sea was a knock-out siren song cycle, a breathtaking and uncharacteristically (for the artist) optimistic affirmation of love's potential to sooth, inspire and transfigure. Uh Huh Her (Island Records), in contrast, re-examines the black heart of that emotion -- even to the point of calling into question its very worth. It would appear those last four years were awfully rough.
The sound is different, too. Jagged and raw like exposed sinews, Uh Huh Her was recorded on the warm and dirty in her analog home studio, with Harvey playing most of the instruments herself. Yet even where she enlists help (notably, from longtime collaborator, drummer Rob Ellis) the arrangements are spare, often consisting only of Harvey's exquisite vocals and guitar or keyboard.
Songs herein are generally true in tone to their ominous titles: "The Life and Death of Mr. Badmouth," "Shame," "The End," "The Darker Days of Me and Him." In a desperate bid for distance and cleansing, Harvey holds little back, cursing, howling, crooning and whispering through a dozen unnerving tracks (two selections are short instrumentals). Yet all is not despair and degradation. The very pretty "You Come Through" acknowledges solidarity in friendship, at least, while "The Desperate Kingdom of Love" puts on a brave face to champion vulnerability.
Wading through such troubling and beautiful revelations of personal pain, one can't help but empathize with Harvey and trust that in the making of this record she experienced some measure of sweet catharsis, if not hope.