PJ HARVEY – ” Stories From The City Stories From The Sea “

Posted: February 26, 2021 in Classic Albums, MUSIC
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Reissue on vinyl of the fifth PJ Harvey studio album “Stories From The City, Stories From The Sea”. Produced by PJ Harvey with Rob Ellis and Mick Harvey, and originally released in November 2000, Stories From The City, Stories From The Sea features the singles ‘Good Fortune’, ‘A Place Called Home’ and ‘This Is Love’ and includes a duet with Radiohead’s Thom Yorke on ‘This Mess We’re In’. The album won the Mercury Music Prize in 2001. Reissue is faithful to the original recording and package, cutting by Jason Mitchell at Loud Mastering under the guidance of longtime PJ Harvey producer Head.

PJ Harvey’s “Stories From The City, Stories From The Sea” is the fifth studio album from the critically acclaimed artist, and it marked a dramatic shift from her previous two releases, To Bring You My Love(1995) and Is This Desire?(1998). The former was Harvey’s commercial breakthrough, which landed the album on several “Best of” lists in 1995 and the latter earned Harvey a GRAMMY nomination for Best Alternative Music Performance in 1998. 

Stories From The City differs from the previous two albums in that it veers away from the blues influences of “To Bring You My Love” and the melancholy of “Is This Desire?.” Harvey paints a very vivid and sensual picture of life in New York City, and if she is indeed the protagonist in these songs, she was definitely living her best life at the time. 

Ironically, the opening track is titled “Big Exit,” a raucous, upbeat tune that immediately lets us know this is going to be something much different than what we had come to expect from Harvey. Track 2, “Good Fortune,” is not only one of the best songs on the album, but it may be one of the best in her catalogue. Harvey seemingly summons the aura of Patti Smith and delivers a tale that examines the indescribable feeling one gets when they first start dating someone. She sings it in a way that brings you right there in that particular moment we’ve all felt at one time or another: “When we walked through / Little Italy / I saw my reflection / Come right off your face / I paint pictures /To remember / You’re too beautiful / To put into words / Like a gypsy / You dance in circles / All around me / And all over the world.”

“Good Fortune” has a thread that continues right through to the next track, “A Place Called Home.” As I listened to the song, it became apparent that this album is somewhat of a chronicle of a romance, and Harvey does not hold back, singing, “One day I know / We’ll find a place of hope / Just hold on to me / Just hold on to me / Walk tight one line / You’re wanted this time / There’s no one to blame / Just hold on to me.”

Harvey has shown vulnerability on her previous recordings, but on Stories From The City, there’s a beauty and joy that radiates throughout the entire album. The next two songs, “One Line” and “Beautiful Feeling,” bring the mood to a more tranquil place, with the latter being one of the darker yet gorgeous songs on the album (“And when I watch you move / And I can’t think straight / And I am silenced / And I can’t think straight / And it’s the best thing / It’s the best thing / The best thing / Such a beautiful feeling”).

The one song that does not have an overt reference to the album’s romantic theme is “The Whores Hustle and the Hustlers Whore,” a song whose lyrical DNA reminds me of a Lou Reed song. The subject matter is definitely in his wheelhouse, as evoked through lines like “Speak to me of heroin and speed / Of genocide and suicide, of syphilis and greed / Speak to me the language of love / The language of violence, the language of the heart / This isn’t the first time I’ve asked for money or love / Heaven and earth don’t ever mean enough / Speak to me of heroin and speed / Just give me something I can believe.”

“This Mess We’re In,” along with the previously mentioned “Good Fortune,” ranks high on the list of Harvey’s best songs in her career. When I first listened to the track twenty years ago, I did not expect it to be a duet with Radiohead’s Thom Yorke singing its first lyrics. The pairing of Harvey and Yorke is sheer perfection, and “This Mess We’re In” made me want to hear more from them. Yorke also did backing vocals on “One Line” and “Beautiful Feeling,” but this one stands out amongst the three. The song is about two lovers whose affair is approaching its end and the conversation leading up to that point, with the duo echoing each other, “What were you wanting? (What was it you wanted?) / I just want to say (I just want to say) / Don’t ever change now baby (Don’t ever change) / And thank you / I don’t think we will meet again / And you must leave now / Before the sun rises over the skyscrapers / And the city landscape comes into being / Sweat on my skin / Oh, this mess we’re in.”

Additional highlights include “Kamikaze,” “This Is Love,” and the album send-off “We Float,” which, like the opening track “Big Exit” musically and lyrically takes the listener to an unexpected place (“We wanted to find love / We wanted success / Until nothing was enough / Until my middle name was excess / And somehow I lost touch / When you went out of sight / When you got lost into the city / Got lost into the night”).

Harvey has always incorporated sex within the thematic thrust of her albums, but with Stories From The City, it feels different from her previous output. Her inspiration had come from another place in her life. Harvey was living in Dorset, England at the time, but a couple of lengthy stays in New York influenced her writing. “New York certainly gave me a different kind of energy,” she explained in a 2000 interview. “I do think that has permeated to some of the music. I had long wanted to [live there]. I made a film with Hal Hartley in New York, and I realized at that time what an inspiring sort of place it felt to me. I can remember even when we were filming, I was writing songs, some of which ended up on this record. I just felt very inspired.”

As I sat down to write this retrospective, I listened to this album intending to play a few tracks at a time, but I often found myself settling in and letting the whole thing play. That’s what excellent albums tend to make you do. The deserving winner of the prestigious 2001 Mercury Prize, Stories From The City, Stories From The Sea is an intense, loving, and beautiful valentine to a New York City that I miss dearly.

Happy 20th Anniversary to PJ Harvey’s fifth studio album “Stories From The City Stories From The Sea”, originally released October 23rd, 2000.

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