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RECORD RACK

A Potent Artist for the '90s : Singer-songwriter PJ Harvey sheds her band and focuses on vocals and words. The result? An artful, graceful and unpredictable third album.

February 26, 1995|Robert Hilburn

PJ HARVEY

"To Bring You My Love"

Island

* * * *

Some of the most compelling albums of the '90s have involved stylistic changes of pace so surprising that they hit you like emotional ambushes--from U2's daring descent into darkness in "Achtung Baby' to R.E.M.'s relentless rock assault in "Monster." In her third and most accomplished formal album, Harvey, too, ambushes us.

The British singer-songwriter's earlier "Dry" and "Rid of Me"--on which she fronted the trio that bore her name--were characterized by a volcanic blues-rock instrumentation that seemed essential to expressing the full depth of anger, confusion and longing in her tales of frightfully troubled relationships.

And sure enough: When the songs from "Rid of Me" were reissued in sparse, stripped-down versions on the "4-Track Demos" album, the tales did lose some of their urgency.

This time, however, Harvey--working with ace co-producer Flood--sheds her old band and its overpowering instrumental assault without sacrificing her brute-force power. The music is still potent, but has a more artful and graceful sheen as it moves unpredictably from a seductive whisper to an exotic attack.

The emphasis is on the vocals and words--and Harvey brings such a rich imagery and ambition to "To Bring You My Love" that the album has the sprawl of an epic novel. The songs are sometimes fire-and-brimstone explorations of life and death, children and lovers, abuse and abandonment, innocence and guilt, helplessness and rage.

At times in this journey these tales of longing and doubt are so dark that even Harvey seems to shrink back--literally forcing you to turn up the volume to properly hear it.

In the most gripping moments, however --including the menacing "Down by the Water," the pleading "C'Mon Billy" and the desperate "Send His Love to Me," she speaks with the captivating clarity and force of someone reaching for a final, life-saving anchor. At one point, she pleads: How long must I suffer / Dear God, I've served my time / This love becomes my torture / This love my only crime.

New albums are rated from one star (poor) to four (excellent).

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