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Pop Music | ALBUM REVIEW

PJ Harvey, still rockin' and roiling

May 30, 2004|Robert Hilburn

PJ Harvey

"Uh Huh Her" (Island)

****

As might be expected of a notoriously reclusive singer-songwriter, Harvey has repeatedly warned us against looking at her songs as autobiographical. But she writes and sings with such convincing character and detail that it's hard to separate the writer from the emotional sieges she describes.

In "Shame," one of the key songs on Harvey's first album in four years (due in stores June 8), she tells the story of a woman so immobilized by failed relationships that she doesn't even know where to put the blame for what seems certain to go wrong in the latest one.

Against a spare, bluesy backdrop, she explains her devotion and dilemma:

And if you tell a lie

I still would take the blame

And if you pass me by

It's such a shame, shame, shame.

It's hard to tell whether Harvey believes the shame rests with the lover for passing the woman by or with the woman for letting herself become obsessed with the relationship. Maybe it's just with the whole state of things.

It's a near-perfect piece of art, a level of accomplishment Harvey achieves with amazing consistency. How strange, then, that this brilliant artist remains something of a cult item in the U.S. even though she was part of a trio of women who were pretty much setting the creative agenda in rock a decade ago.

Between them, Liz Phair, Courtney Love (with her band Hole) and Harvey captured first place on the Village Voice's pop critics' list of best albums for three years in a row. Phair started the streak in 1993 with her smart, wisecracking "Exile in Guyville," followed by Hole's convulsive "Live Through This" in 1994 and Harvey's seductive, unsettling "To Bring You My Love" in 1995.

Of the three, only Harvey is still viewed as a major contender in rock. Phair has wandered onto less compelling pop turf, while Love's career seems hijacked by personal problems.

Harvey lives up to those expectations in "Uh Huh Her," not only writing and producing the album in her home studio in England but also playing virtually all the instruments, including guitar, bass, autoharp, violin and keyboards. Rob Ellis adds drums.

Though Harvey finds room for nuance and even some dark humor in the album, she mainly cuts to the quick. "I'm not trying to break your heart, I'm just trying not to fall apart," she declares in "The Pocket Knife," an edgy tale of a woman so determined to maintain control of her destiny that she's willing to hint at violence.

Long before the White Stripes came along, Harvey showed how the earthy intensity of the blues could be woven into contemporary tales of obsession and need that seemed more akin to Southern gothic novels than something from the rural countryside of Harvey's southwest England.

In the album's closing tune, "The Darker Days of Me and Him," Harvey's character seems resigned to her fate: "Promises, promises, I'm feeling burned / You taught me a lesson, I didn't want to learn."

Album ratings range from one star (poor) to four stars (excellent).

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