WOWEE ZOWEE (24)
June 13, 2018
One in a series of enthusiastic posts, contributed by HILOBROW friends and regulars, on the subject of our favorite albums of the Nineties (1994–2003). A new installment in this series will appear each Wednesday during 2018.
IS THIS DESIRE? | PJ HARVEY | 1998
My first encounter with PJ Harvey’s achingly beautiful Is This Desire? left me an emotional wreck, unable to formulate coherent thoughts or critical opinions. Like all of Harvey’s best work, it packed a visceral wallop, knocking the wind right out of me. I may not have understood it intellectually after that first listen, but I certainly understood it emotionally. I wanted nothing more than to live inside the album’s haunting insularity. I gave it another listen, and then another after that.
As with much of Harvey’s catalog, it’s an album that rewards repeat engagement. Chock full of aching desire, replete with religious imagery — water and fire, heaven and hell, faith and skepticism — the album coheres around a series of subtle, yet musically adventurous arrangements. Songs settle into hushed, elegiac grooves, punctuated occasionally and emphatically by the bracing, explosive sound and fury of tracks like “The Sky Lit Up” or “No Girl So Sweet.”
For nearly twenty years now, I’ve regularly revisited the album, letting Harvey guide me through its foreboding and remarkable landscapes. It hasn’t lost any of its emotional resonance for me through the years. Songs like “Angelene” and “The Garden” remain powerfully evocative, stunningly cinematic in scope, style, and performance. Even the distinctive way Harvey modulates her voice, playing with pitch and phrasing to suit the strengths of each song, conjures up a series of muted, sepia-toned images in my mind. Harvey has always been my Bowie: a musical chameleon continually evolving her sound, album to album, while never losing the essence of what makes her special.
In the closing title track, Harvey plaintively whispers, “Is this desire / Enough enough / To lift us higher?” That she never quite answers this question feels entirely appropriate. She knows there are no easy answers to the great mysteries, at least none worth finding. The characters she’s singing about here, from Angelene to Joy to Catherine, are like us: wounded and yearning for a transcendence that lies just beyond their reach. Harvey understands that it’s this epic journey in search of answers to the unanswerable that is most worth exploring.
WOWEE ZOWEE: Stephanie Burt on UNISEX | Anindita Basu Sempere on UNDER THE PINK | Mark Kingwell on DUMMY | Bill Nericcio on AMOR PROHIBIDO | Sherri Wasserman on HIPS AND MAKERS | Mimi Lipson on THANK YOU | John Overholt on BEN FOLDS FIVE | Jordan Ellenberg on GET LOST | Chelsey Johnson on PERSONAL BEST | Marilyn Snell on MAXINQUAYE | Dan Fox on DIFFERENT CLASS | Devin McKinney on IF YOU’RE FEELING SINISTER | Alice Boone on MTV UNPLUGGED (ALICE IN CHAINS) | Rob Wringham on SPICE | Joe Alterio on BEATS, RHYMES AND LIFE | Jason Loeffler on SECOND TOUGHEST IN THE INFANTS | Rick Pinchera on EITHER/OR | Josh Glenn on THE LONESOME CROWDED WEST | Jennifer Krasinski on SUPA DUPA FLY | Sara Ryan on DIG ME OUT | Luc Sante on MEZZANINE | Molly Wright Steenson on I CAN HEAR THE HEART BEATING AS ONE | Franklin Bruno on ENGLAND MADE ME | Michael Campochiaro on IS THIS DESIRE? | Adrienne Crew on CALIFORNICATION | Drew Daniel on I SEE A DARKNESS | Veda Hille on THE SOFT BULLETIN | Vanessa Berry on TEENAGE SNUFF FILM | Tom Kipp on GET SKINTIGHT | David Hirmes on DOPETHRONE | John Hilgart on YORK BLVD. | Deborah Wassertzug on JOURNEY TO THE END OF THE NIGHT | Adam McGovern on INVINCIBLE SUMMER | Brian Berger on TIRED SOUNDS OF… | Michael Grasso on MUSIC HAS THE RIGHT TO CHILDREN | Jen Collins on HURRAH | Flourish Klink on THE TEACHES OF PEACHES | Judith Zissman on TALLAHASSEE | Lauren Oliver on SOUND-DUST | Jason Cohen on IS THIS IT | Matthew De Abaitua on THE RAINBOW CHILDREN | Jenny Davidson on TIME (THE REVELATOR) | Crystal Durant on LIVE THROUGH THIS | Gordon Dahlquist on GARBAGE | Erin M. Routson on WASHING MACHINE | Carl Wilson on TEMPTING | Jessamyn West on ALL HAIL WEST TEXAS | Kaleb Horton on STREETCORE | Tom Nealon on BAZOOKA TOOTH | Erik Davis on DOPESMOKER | David Levine on FEVER TO TELL | Deb Chachra on MASS ROMANTIC.
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