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POP MUSIC | RECORD RACK

Four-Star Performers

September 27, 1998|Mike Boehm

**** PJ HARVEY "Is This Desire?" Island

*

The diminution and trivialization of alterna-rock in the late '90s stops right here. On her fifth noncollaborative album, Polly Jean Harvey simultaneously falls back on the elemental blues grounding that sets her apart from most of her generation while zooming ahead into trip-hop and techno.

This song cycle plays like a dream sequence, with characters stepping in and out of each other's stories, all on a bleak quest to release themselves from emptiness. The English rocker tries to ride some tested vehicles to realms of wonder, including the taut Temptations and Marvin Gaye grooves of "The Wind" and the surging Velvets/Sonic Youth clang-rock of "The Sky Lit Up." In "No Girl So Sweet," Harvey merges techno and rock more wildly and ambitiously than Garbage. But she allows no easy resolution to her characters' searching.

Whether whispering or keening, Harvey taps into a rich, mythic vein of expression. Each song has its own daring and distinctive aural landscape, and her singing places her at the center of today's best dark-knowledge female rocker tradition, with echoes of Lucinda Williams, Patti Smith, Carla Bozulich and Johnette Napolitano. The sonic and lyrical imagery parallels literary giants like William Wordsworth (in the wounded hermit of "The Wind") and William Blake (in the stunted, juiceless, industrially damaged life of "Joy") without needing the validation of direct allusion.

In the album's final, searing refrain, Harvey's dramatic, incantatory voice rises with dread: "Is this desire enough, enough to lift us higher, to lift above?" If not, she realizes, then rock 'n' roll's game of liberation through fiery ardor has ended in checkmate. In making rock confront its own possible endgame futility, Harvey wins an imposing victory for a vision of rock that's more than celebrity skin-deep.

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