Kind of About You; Kind of About Me - PJ Harvey's "Stories From The City, Stories From The Sea" at 20
This would have been shortly after Christmas in the year 2000, or perhaps a few days into the New Year, in January of 2001, but with either money I had been given for the holiday, or, quite possibly, with a Best Buy gift card, I blindly bought a CD copy of PJ Harvey’s Stories From The City, Stories From The Sea.
I say blindly because, at least for me, growing up in a very rural community in Northwestern Illinois, the year 2000, and into 2001, was a different time—for me, it was a time of America Online and dial-up internet connections. It was a time of reading about artists and albums in issues of Rolling Stone or Spin, but unless I was able to catch the video on MTV or VH-1, this was a time before previewing 30 seconds of something in the iTunes Store.
It was a time before access to a public radio station. A time before high speed internet and file sharing.
This was a time when it was easy to read about new music, but retrospectively difficult to learn about music through hearing it first.
I say blindly because I more or less bought Stories From The City, Stories From The Sea on the faith of both the positive press the album was receiving in the music magazines I frequently read, but also, because of the Thom Yorke feature that begins the second side—“This Mess We’re In.”
I had been aware of Harvey prior to this, though—truthfully, and this might date me slightly, and also provide an insight into how I spent my pre-teen years, but my introduction to PJ Harvey was, of all places, through the appearance of the “Down By The Water” video on an episode of “Beavis and Butt-Head.”
And I was eventually, more properly introduced to Harvey through her contribution to the haunting, trudging “Broken Homes,” from Tricky’s maligned, underwhelming third full-length, Angels With Dirty Faces, as well as being somewhat aware of Harvey’s own release from the same year, Is This Desire?
A blind buy can be a dangerous gamble, and over two decades later, Stories From The City, Stories From The Sea is one of those rare, almost perfect albums, from beginning to end, but that kind of sentiment toward it only comes with time, and the way one grows into an album—and the growth doesn’t always happen immediately.
I think, if I recall, there were songs I was drawn to right away—thankfully, I did really like “This Mess We’re In,” and since I was a 17 year old at the time, I am sure that once I got back into my car, and cracked the plastic wrapping off of the jewel case, I slid the disc into the CD player and went to track seven instead of listening from the beginning.
But I think, by the end of 2001, and into 2002, during the long holiday break from my first year in college, it was an album that I had finally eased my way into, and began to appreciate as a whole, rather than picking apart for its more accessible, or less challenging moments.
Harvey swears that Stories From The City is not a “New York album,” though that is precisely the way I would describe it to someone if they were to ask me about it, and where it falls in her canon up until that point. Written, at least in part, while Harvey was living in New York City in 1998, it doesn’t represent a “turning point” in her career, but it is a high water mark that she has been uninterested in duplicating—spread across the album’s 12 tracks, the city itself serves as inspiration, if not a character, in a number of songs (“You Said Something” being the most apparent), and it’s an album that finds Harvey, ever restless with her sound as an artist, chasing a kind of exuberant, carefree feeling that could only come from being in your late 20s and early 30s, living in a place that has the kind of energy that New York City has, and filling your time with late nights, deep conversations, while chasing after and tumbling into a reckless kind of love.
At the beginning of 2020, as I do at the beginning of nearly every year in recent memory, I make a list of albums that I am aware of that will be celebrating milestone anniversaries—last year, Kid A, from Radiohead, and The White Pony, from the Deftones, both turned 20, and they were the two that I was perhaps the most focused on revisiting and ruminating on.
Stories From The City, Stories From The Sea was on that list, too, of course, though midway through the year, Harvey announced her plans for an ambitious reissue campaign of her catalog—nearly all of them out of print on vinyl—beginning with her auspicious 1992 debut, Dry. And released separately from these reissues, as companion pieces of sorts, are demo recordings, pulling together early, home-recorded versions of each song that made the final album.
The demos, often nearly fully realized in their structure, and in the case of the Stories From The City, Stories From The Sea collection, are just a little sparse and rough sounding—showing just how focused and detailed Harvey was with her songwriting, even when things were in their initial stages.
It would have made sense to culminate the anniversary of the album in October of 2020, with the release of the reissue, however, Harvey wound down last year with Dance Hall at Louse Point, a collaborative effort with guitarist John Parish from 1996, and picked things up at the end of January with Is This Desire?, and Stories From The City arriving a month later.
21 years later, Stories From The City, Stories From The Sea still sounds as gigantic and invigorating as it did upon its original release, and the collection of demos gives a small window into Harvey’s creative process, but it mostly shows what should have been clear already—that with each record, PJ Harvey is a thoughtful and blisteringly confident songwriter and performer.
Subjectively, but perhaps even slightly objectively speaking, Stories From The City is Harvey’s most straightforward and accessible album—it’s not as insular and haunted as Is This Desire?, and it’s not as dramatic and sensual as To Bring You My Love. I would argue that the last three records Harvey has released under her own name, over the course of the last 14 years, have been of diminishing returns, but even with that being said, from the beginning, each release has been about her growth and refusal to stand still as an artist.
Following the absolutely visceral sexuality she exuded on her independently released debut, Dry, and its follow up Rid of Me, the title track to which ends with her shouting with an uncomfortable dissonance in her voice, “Lick my legs—I’m on fire”—Harvey began to dial that back to a place of glamorous, but at times still very raw, sensuality on To Bring You My Love.
And there is still a sensual nature to parts of Stories From The City, but Harvey is no longer boiling over that kind of borderline terrifying carnality; this album finds her writing from somewhere else—I hesitate to refer to it as that nervous, almost jittery feeling of when you find yourself falling in love with somebody, but that urgent, practically obsessive, all consuming feeling you get swept up in is very, very present.
One of the most impressive things about Stories From The City—maybe not so much when I first heard it because I don’t believe I was capable of really thinking about music in this way, but two decades later, the way the album is structured is a marvel. It opens brightly and bombastically, and Harvey never really lets up until almost the halfway point. And, perhaps intentionally, or perhaps I am too far into this already and overanalyzing the structure of the album’s two halves and this is coincidental, but both sides to Stories From The City begin with elements of danger or at the very least, a tension that is completely unresolved.
“Big Exit” begins like a jolt, with Harvey shouting the song’s opening verse before singing the refrain. “I see danger come,” she warns to someone. “I wanna pistol—I wanna gun. I’m scared baby, I wanna run,” she continues; then, in the second verse, “ I met a man who told me straight, ‘You gotta leave—it’s getting late.’ Too many cops—too many guns.” She paints a vivid, dizzying, unsettling portrait with this partially ambiguous narrative, and creates an even darker scene with the lyrics to the song’s bridge section—“I just feel like it’s the end of the world.”
Apparently a response to the amount of gun violence Harvey became aware of while living in New York, the expressions “Too many cops—too many guns” and “I just feel like it’s the end of the world,” are, 20 years later, still very eerie, chilling reflections of things that have taken place within the United States in the last year.
She juxtaposes all of this against the imagery of reckless love—“Baby baby, ain’t it true? I’m immortal when I’m with you.”
Outside of her high profile, tumultuous relationship with Nick Cave in the early to mid 1990s, Harvey has kept her personal life, or romantic involvements, very private—a dedication of “For Vincent Gallo” regarding the song “The End,” from 2004’s Uh Huh Her has led to a lot of speculation about who the recipient of this chaotic, impassioned love as depicted on Stories From The City was.
Harvey takes that sentiment from “Big Exit”—the “I’m immortal when I’m with you,” and pulls it through to the next song, “Good Fortune,” which musically speaking is a lot less bombastic but picks up with a very similar feeling.
“Threw my bad fortunes off the top of a tall building,” she begins. “But I’d rather done it with you.”
It’s a love song, yes, as many of the songs on Stories From The City, Stories From The Sea are, but there’s something about the way Harvey depicts this kind of love that is captivating and stunning. “Five in the morning—looked into your eyes and I was really in love,” she continues; or, toward the end of the song, “When we walked through Little Italy, I saw my reflection come right off your face. I pain pictures to remember—you’re too beautiful to put into words.”
In the hands of a less confident performer and songwriter, this could come off as incredibly saccharine, but Harvey pulls it of because of the way she’s able to construct this narrative. It’s captivating and stunning, yes, and you don’t feel like she’s singing directly to you, but you feel like you are in the moment with her and the mysterious romantic partner who is the object of her affection—but what I realize now is that as beautifully and vividly as she depicts this, it’s also a dangerous kind of love, and that danger, outside of the actual, tangible danger that Harvey alludes to in both “Big Exit” and “This Mess We’re In,” serves as a through line, or overarching concept that takes you through to very end of the record and the somewhat surprising yet also not entirely surprising conclusion to Harvey’s narrative.
“Do you remember the first kiss?,” Harvey utters in a lower register at the beginning of “One Line,” the fourth song on Stories From The City, and structurally, it’s the moment where Harvey begins to pull things back a little in terms of the album’s energy and explosive nature.
“Stars shooting across the sky,” she adds. “To come to such a place as this—you never left my mind.” “One Line” is based around a kind of “quiet/loud/quiet” aesthetic, picking up slightly as she slides into the refrain, and even with the cloying nature of a song that begins with a lyric about someone asking if a first kiss is remembered, she contrasts that with more dark, chaotic energy—“This world all gone to war—all I need is you tonight.”
Harvey was only living in New York temporarily, but on more than one occasion, one less subtle than the other, there among the urgent, dizzying love that she has written about, is also a desire to find a sense of permanency—though it’s never implied that she wants New York to be her home.
She alludes to it on “Big Exit” but bellowing, “I walk on concrete—I walk on sand. But I can’t find a safe place to stand,” but it’s the most obvious on the swirling, infectious “A Place Called Home,” where Harvey writes from a place of near desperation, or at least from a place where she is running headlong into unsettling urgency. “Just hold to me,” she implores; then, as the song continues to oscillate unrelentingly, “I wait to be born again—with love comes the day.”
The titular phrase itself, too, is delivered with a sense of both assurance, but an undercurrent of imprudence as she strings nearly all the words together without taking a breath—“One day I know they’ll be a place called home.”
The turn in the album’s narrative, which I only really put together now in really revisiting it and thinking about it critically, doesn’t come right away after the halfway point, but it really hits within the album’s final moments.
Stories From The City’s second half begins with “This Mess We’re In,” which removes the listener slightly from the album’s real focus and narrative, and dropping you instead into a space where Harvey and Thom Yorke sing opposite each other, creating an environment that is full of slow burning lust and a strange, almost Lynchian sense of unnerving, palpable, ambiguous danger that is never directly addressed but always right there.
“Can you hear them—the helicopters? I’m in New York,” Yorke begins the song’s first verse. “No need for words now.”
Even though it’s place in the center of the album, and Stories From The City, Stories From The Sea isn’t a concept album, there is this unification that occurs, and a narrative that develops for Harvey and her unidentified companion—and this song breaks the structure of the album by possibly jumping ahead—or, it, quite possibly, is unrelated entirely. “We sit in silence,” he continue, delivering the fragmented lyrics with a great reserve in his voice. “You look me in the eye directly. You met me. I think it’s Wednesday—the evening. This mess we’re in.”
And while Yorke wordlessly howls as the song’s refrain, it is Harvey who comes in with a husky response—“The city sunset over me.”
Musically, the song never gets away from Harvey, or Yorke, as the instrumentation remains steady, allowing the focus to be both on the atmosphere the lyrics create, and the performances from the two. The song concludes with something that seems right out of a Broadway musical—albeit a very dark, strange one, with Yorke and Harvey letting their voices overlap, with her repeating, in almost a talk/sing cadence, what he has sung. It’s a haunting moment on the album, especially as they reach the peak of their exchange—“I don’t think we will meet again, and you must leave now before the sunrise above skyscrapers. The sin—and this mess we’re in.”
This unnerving, dramatic tension is juxtaposed with what I’ve come to regard as one of Stories From The City, Stories From The Sea’s finest tracks, and probably one of Harvey’s best songs—“You Said Something.”
“You Said Something” is the most New York centered song on the record—serving as both a love letter to her time spent in the city, but it’s also the most straightforward, earnest love song of the set, with Harvey literally swooning around lyrically while the music—just enormous electric guitar strums—swoon around her.
“On a rooftop in Brooklyn, at one in the morning,” she begins. “Watching the lights flash in Manhattan. I see five bridges—the Empire State Building”—and okay, yes, admittedly here she is just, like, naming neighborhoods and landmarks in New York City, but she sells it, and it works to create the scene. She then quickly steps back from this imagery construction with the song’s through line: “You said something, that I’ve never forgotten.”
“You Said Something” is Harvey at her most romantic, and even though the love she’s describing is still very all encompassing and possibly a little dangerous, or chaotic, the danger has subsided and there is something very poetic, passionate, and very real happening in the song.
“We lean against railings describing the colours and smells of hour homelands—acting like lovers,” she continues in the second verse, or, in the third verse, “And I am doing nothing wrong, riding in your car—your radio playing, we sing up to the eighth floor.”
And it’s here, again, that there isn’t a break in the album’s narrative, or the conceit of the idea of love, or a whirlwind romance, that runs through the album, but there is another slight fracture—the phrase “acting” like lovers, or the insistence of not “doing anything wrong” riding in this person’s car.
There’s also the mystery that Harvey never, and of course intentionally, chooses to resolve for the listeners—what was said to her? “You said something that I’ve never forgotten,” she explains. “You said something that was really important.” It’s a neat trick, as a songwriter, that she pulls off here, not so much leaving us hanging, but in a state of wonder, and based on the hairline fractures in the narrative, you have to wonder if what was said—important and unforgettable—was good or bad.
It would have been a year after I purchased Stories From The City, Stories From The Sea—at the end of my first semester in college, and the tail end of 2001, that I found myself captivated by the second to last song on the record, the slow burning, trudging “Horses in My Dreams.”
And maybe you’re like me—out of all the associations you make with music that has found its way into your life, you associate specific artists, or songs, or albums, with specific seasons—you have particular things that are your “autumn records,” or songs that just scream “summer.”
And because of the time of year—a particularly cold, dark, and personally bleak December in 2001 into January of 2002, I somehow came to “Horses in My Dreams” at this time, and since then, have referred to it as of my “winter songs.”
It is, objectively, the chilliest song on the album.
They don’t do it as much as they used to, but I think that most listeners are used to the idea of the “fade out”; however, there are not all that many songs that I am aware of that “fade in.” “Black Star,” by Radiohead, is the one that always comes to mind right away—but “Horses in My Dreams” is another.
The fade itself is intentionally long, and slow, taking nearly an entire minute before it reaches its stopping point, just shortly before Harvey’s broken, fragile sounding voice comes in. Brushed, gentle percussion, strummed acoustic guitar, and a cavernous sounding piano begin as a whisper, or like a voice coming from another room, deliberately growing in volume, but also just barely. Like, the song itself, even after the fade in, is an exercise in restraint, and creates a jarring contrast to some of the more explosive, snarling moments on the album.
Sometimes I have “a moment” with a song. Maybe you do too, and for a long time, you associate that song with that moment or certain elements of that moment—specifically, in college, I often think about a moment when I went walking through a gentle, breathtaking snowfall one night, while listening to “One With The Freaks” by The Notwist.
I don’t know if I had a specific moment with “Horses in My Dreams” that year, or why it was a deep cut off of the record that suddenly became so important, as the winter grew colder and the nights became seemingly endless.
Lyrically, it is Harvey at her most ambiguous and shadowy, and it’s not “easy” per se to not pay attention to the lyrics and instead find yourself swept up in the overall somber, slow moving, chilling feeling that the song as a whole creates, but the lyrics, even in their fragmented vagueness, seem to play a part within the narrative of the album if you begin to unpack them ever so slightly.
“The end” of her whirlwind, dizzying romance is implied a few times before we get to this point on the album, and “Horses in My Dreams” is one of two tracks that, moving the ambiguity aside, explore the dissolving of the relationship.
We should, if we can, take a moment to talk about the range of PJ Harvey’s voice, because it has to be one of the most original and unique in contemporary popular music. At times, it can be beautiful and melodious; at times it can be dissonant and uncomfortable. And she’s able to run it through everything in between, and here, on “Horses in My Dreams,” she sings from a low, raspy, borderline guttural place, croaking out the titular phrase as the song’s opening line, letting the words and notes just hang like heavy specters over the slow dirge of instrumentation under her.
“Rode a horse around the world, along the tracks of a train,” she bellows. “Broke the record, found the gold. Set myself free again.” And it’s that last line, as well as the song’s haunting “refrain” of “I have pulled myself clear,” that both linger—the idea of setting yourself free (from what) and pulling yourself clear (to where, and away from what.) And for the longest time, this was just my winter song, and I did little if anything to unpack the larger meaning it contributes to the narrative of the album, but it is very obviously a reflection of the end—a reflection that is much less cloaked in imagery and metaphor on the album’s final, woozy track “We Float.”
“We Float” is maybe the most gentle sounding track on the album in terms of how it uses a delicate, swooning refrain, but juxtaposes that against the dissonance, or harshness, of the verses. And with it being the last song on the album, it serves as a narrative epilogue, with Harvey recounting how things began, where they ran into trouble and how they got to where they are now, and what happens in the face of the end.
“We wanted to find love,” she begins, over a slightly dated sounding drum machine and very precise stabs of piano keys. “We wanted success. Until nothing was enough—until my middle name was excess.”
At the end of the song’s first verse, she uses the phrase, “lost into the night,” giving the feeling of slight remorse, or at least regret, at just how wrapped up in things both she, and this other person, became. “You carried all my hopes,” she sings in the second verse. “Until something broke inside.”
It’s beautiful, really, if you break it down that way and look at the starkness, or very blunt way she reflects and then ruminates, with the only real resolve coming in the form of the titular expression—“But now we float—take life as it comes.”
Stories From The City, Stories From The Sea begins with an explosive whirlwind, but it ends with things being pulled apart very slowly—but it’s uncertain if it is a painful separation. “Will we die of shock?,” Harvey asks in “We Float”’s final verse. “Die without a trial….while holding each other tight.”
“This is kind of about you,” she states. “This is kind of about me. We just kind of lost our way but we were looking to be free.”
Stories From The City, Stories From The Sea does work as a whole, which is I think the intent in the end, especially once you begin to unpack the narrative that Harvey has tucked into it. It does run, from beginning to end, almost flawlessly, but there are a few slightly less successfully executed moments—the creeping, slow motion “Beautiful Feeling” pulls the pacing of the album’s first half down, before it is built back up again with the swirling, howling, jittery “The Whores Hustle and The Hustlers Whore,” which is one of the few moments that Harvey really lets loose with the unhinged nature of her vocals—it is also, inherently, not one of the album’s “best” songs and is a very deliberate break in the narrative, and more of a statement on the hopelessness and frenetic energy of city life.
The ferocious sexuality that Harvey displayed early in her career is obviously toned down quite a bit here, or at least she had matured out of it by the time she recorded Stories From The City, and the album’s horniest song is one of its singles, and maybe one of her most well known for the casual fan—“This is Love,” which features the cringey lyrics “I can’t believe life is so complex when I just want to sit here and watch you undress.”
Musically, at least in part on To Bring You My Love and for sure on Is This Desire?, Harvey commits to a cohesive aesthetic—and here, long gone is the creeping, sensual, claustrophobia of Is This Desire?, and instead it’s been replaced with a straightforward “rock” arrangement of clean sounding electric guitars and sharp percussion, with the occasional additional flourishes of piano or keyboards. And it’s that dedication to the straightforward sound, courtesy of her “bandmates” at the time, Rob Ellis and Mick Harvey—and it’s worth noting that this is one of the last times she would work with both of them this closely—but it’s that straightforward sound that does really make Stories From The City Harvey’s most readily accessible or her least intimidating—but because the instrumentation rarely departs from its comfort zone, the cohesion does, still, after two decades, gives it this very samey feeling that isn’t a bad thing, but could also maybe have benefited from being slightly more dynamic.
In looking at the Wikipedia entry for Stories From The City, Stories From The Sea, I was surprised that when the site was still more or less in its infancy, and didn’t take itself as seriously as it does now, Pitchfork gave the album a startling 5.5—in contrast, they bestowed her 2011 album, Let England Shake, with an 8.8, which I am not sure I could even listen to from beginning to end. But maybe, in retrospect, I’ve just wanted Harvey to make another Stories From The City, or even another Is This Desire?—neither of which she has ever come close to recreating the tonality of in her subsequent albums, and retrospectively, I think this is why I also struggled to appreciate her 2004 effort, Uh Huh Her, at the time of its release. It isn’t a “break up” album per se, but it is sonically, and thematically difficult, and is nowhere near as immediate as this.
Stories From The City, a year after its release, and among the other accolades it was nominated for, won the coveted Mercury Prize—the ceremony, held on September 11th, 2001. Harvey was in the United States at the time, staying in a hotel near the Pentagon; accepting her award over the telephone, she said, “It has been a very surreal deal. All I can say is thank you very much. I am absolutely stunned.”
Somewhat recently, a friend of mine told me she preferred demo versions, or acoustic versions of songs because they are more often sadder than the album, or “proper” version. And the surprising thing about this PJ Harvey reissue campaign and the accompanying demo collections is that with the material from To Bring You My Love, Is This Desire?, and Stories From The City, the songs are, in their “demo” form, almost complete.
A demo recording implies a sketch, or an idea that will later be developed fully, but unless there are a bunch of tapes lying around Harvey’s archive of early, incomplete versions of these songs, she has no time to waste when it comes to songwriting and construction, and there are moments that, save for the simple fact that much of the additional instrumentation is missing, and the occasional tape hiss or 4-track cassette warble or imperfection—there are moments that seem so complete, you do a double take thinking that you are listening to the finished product.
As one might expect with a companion release of ephemeral, or archival recordings, that the Stories From The City, Stories From The Sea demos are intended for the longtime PJ Harvey fan—someone like myself who has held this album close for over 20 years; someone like myself who is rapidly approaching 5,000 words in a retrospective essay that unpacks the album’s merits. The demo collection does little, if anything, to shed new light onto the mythology surrounding the album’s inspiration and conceit—it presents the run of 12 songs in a stripped down, raw arrangements.
There are a few moments, or flashes of interest though, including the very chintzy drum machines Harvey employs a few times, including on the collection’s finale, “We Float,” where you can also hear the beginnings of the piano key progression that is plunked throughout, but here, the sound is deadened a little because it’s coming from a home keyboard.
I don’t want to say that Harvey is one of the most “underrated” guitarists in contemporary popular music, because as a multi-instrumentalist, but mostly known as a singer, the guitar is not the first instrument that is synonymous with her as a performer—an image search of recent photographs will find her often clutching a small saxophone for some reason—but because this collection is just, mostly, her and the guitar, Harvey’s command of the instrument is incredible, specifically when she gets into the opening feedback she manages to wrangle on “The Whores Hustle and The Hustlers Whore,” as well as the way she snarls through “Kamikaze” and “This is Love” with real confidence.
The real attraction, I suppose, to investigate the demo collection, regardless of how much of a fan of Harvey or Stories From The City you might be, is the early recording of “This Mess We’re In,” without Thom Yorke’s contribution, and Harvey contributing both parts by overdubbing herself on her home recorder—more of a fascinating artifact that signified things to come than anything else. Harvey does let it get away from her a little when the vocal tracks overlap at the song’s climax, but it is surprisingly chilling to hear her harmonize with herself on the final “This mess we’re in.”
A strong argument could be made that Stories From The City, Stories From The Sea is PJ Harvey’s finest, and if not her finest, her most compelling while remaining accessible or at the very least, not as intimidating as some of the albums before this, and definitely the albums that came after it.
Two decades later, the reason Stories From The City still sounds so vital and exuberant now is because Harvey has made something so vivid—a hyper-literate depiction of a whirlwind romance that, in the way it’s describe, you can’t help but become swept up in that kind of visceral display of emotion, possibly wanting it for yourself, even though you know how this ends—badly, and with possible danger.