If you spend too much time reading music magazines – do people still do that? – or you spend too much time on the internet, it’s tempting to see Is This Desire? as the flip side of The Boatman’s Call, or a direct response to it or some combination of the two. The easiest thing for listeners with a tiny bit of knowledge of the personal lives of artists is to project what we think we know onto the art. The Boatman’s Call is, at times, explicitly about Harvey after all so it stands to reason, doesn’t it, that Is This Desire? is at least in part about Nick Cave?
The biggest problem with this easy conclusion is that Harvey’s lyrics rarely if ever appear to be about Nick Cave (as far as I can figure). Moreover, in interviews with Harvey I’ve read – and by actually listening to her lyrics – it seems that Harvey is usually quite far from a confessional songwriter. I’m sure this record was heavily influenced by their break up – how could it not be? – but it feels like a fool’s errand to spend time parsing these words for explicit signs of Nick Cave. (If that’s what you feel like doing, just listen to The Boatman’s Call, where he explicitly sings about her and their relationship.) I thought I had to get that out of the way. (I will grant that it’s hard to listen to “The Garden” without imagining it is about Nick Cave if you know about the relationship.)
What a left turn. It’s not the absolute biggest left turn from a songwriter ever, obviously, but it’s quite substantial, especially once you get past “Angelene,” which at least sort of resembles her previous sound, albeit slower and softer, and “The Sky Lit Up,” which definitely sounds like a bit of a departure but is also recognizable. Once you get to “The Wind” you’d be wondering who you’re listening to if it wasn’t for Harvey’s distinct voice. (Perhaps this sequencing was done on purpose, to avoid scaring off her fans.)
RYM lists this as “trip hop,” which is a huge stretch most of the time. Sure, it’s clear she’s been listening to it, but to classify a record like this as “trip hop” or “downtempo” or “electronic” is to really mislead listeners. This is still a PJ Harvey album, only many of the songs have had a bit of a 1998 makeover.
The surprise is how much the makeover works. Perhaps that’s because Harvey is inimitable and any clothes her songs wear will fit. Perhaps she wrote some of the songs with a mind to arrangements like this. Either way, the record manages to both sound utterly new and exactly like you expect her to sound. (It helps that some of the songs do sound like her old stuff.)
At the moment, this is not my favourite set of songs she’s written, but I appreciate the left turn enough to overlook that. (I also suspect that, as with her other albums, I will come to like the songs more with time.)
Just a really great record that expands her sound without compromising anything about what made her great in the first place. (Well, almost…)