Rewind: PJ Harvey’s Stories From The City, Stories From The Sea
With TIDAL Rewind, we blow the dust off an old album that’s begging to be heard again. Here we look back at PJ Harvey’s Stories From The City, Stories From The Sea, which turns 15 years old on October 23.
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What is Stories From The City, Stories From The Sea?
Stories From the City… is the fifth studio album from British alternative rock musician Polly Jean Harvey, better known as PJ Harvey. Released October 23, 2000 on Island Records, the album soon became Harvey’s biggest commercial success to date, and one of the most critically acclaimed albums of the year.
The album was recorded at the Great Linford Manor – a 17th century mansion in England that was converted into a recording studio complex. It was co-produced by Mick Harvey, Rob Ellis and Polly Jean herself.
The record earned Harvey the prestigious 2001 Mercury Prize (U.K. Album of the Year), which she would later go on to become the first and only artist to win twice with 2011′s Let England Shake. In 2002 Q Magazine named Stories… the Greatest Album of All-Time by a Female Artist. The album has sold over 1 million copies, and has been a big inspiration for artists all over the world.
What does it sound like?
Stories… is a direct, raw and naked album with an overall minimalistic production – a sound that fans might recognize from Harvey’s other albums. With dry electric guitars, simple beats, piano and her sharp, cocky voice, Harvey coined a sound early in her career that went hand-in-hand with her DIY-approach and frequently moody and dark lyrics.
But Stories… also reveals a softer side of the British songstress, along with some of her most elegant songs. Just listen to the magnificent duet “This Mess We’re In” featuring Radiohead’s own Thom Yorke, the melancholic “One Line” (also featuring backing vocals from Yorke) or the existential “A Place Called Home.”
Speaking of her intentions in a 2001 interview with Q, Harvey said:
“Having experimented with some dreadful sounds on Is This Desire? and To Bring You My Love – where I was really looking for dark, unsettling, nauseous-making sounds – Stories From The City… was the reaction. I thought, No, I want absolute beauty. I want this album to sing and fly and be full of reverb and lush layers of melody. I want it to be my beautiful, sumptuous, lovely piece of work.”
The beauty and strength of Stories… lies in its contrasts. As its full title indicates, this is an album that takes you to disparate places – from the crowded city to the barren oceanside. Sometimes it’s rough, ugly and stressed, and sometimes it’s calm and hauntingly beautiful. One moment you’re standing at a Brooklyn rooftop at 1 a.m. (”You Said Something”), and in the next you’re dreaming of waves hitting the rocky shores of England (”Horses In My Dreams”).
For inspiration, Harvey spent six months in New York City, which is apparent on several tracks. Just listen to the rip-roaring “The Whores Hustle And The Hustles Whore” and it’s obvious we’re not in Dorset anymore. With her newfound metropolitan backdrop, Harvey tells of an urban love affair, from its initial euphoria (“Beautiful Feeling,” “This Is Love”) to the painful breakup (“Kamikaze,” “This Mess We’re In”), using her trusty craft for language that has made her one of the most artful storytellers in modern rock.
Many critics have called Stories… Harvey’s most optimistic album, showing a singer so clearly lovestruck and full of joy. When Rolling Stone included Stories… on their list of the 500 Greatest Albums of All Time in 2003, the magazine wrote: ”Polly Harvey, happy? It was a surprise: But album number five found her in New York and in love. The result was lusher than anything she had recorded but also vibrant and surprisingly catchy.”
Why should I care?
Stories From The City, Stories From The Sea is like a good friend; it pushes you forward when you need to get up, and hold your hand while you’re sinking. It’s an album that taps into one of the essential feelings in life: love and hate in human relationships. These are universal themes that most people can relate to, and this is probably one of the reasons to why Stories… was and still is a highly influential album that hasn’t faded a bit in brilliance.
In Stories… one can find both the consolation and the courage to tell the world about your feelings. Being in love, it’s hard to think of a better thing to do than to shout out straightforward lines like “This is love / This is love / That I’m feeling” from the blues-influenced tenth track “This Is Love.” On the other hand, screaming “Kamikaze” while slamming on your guitar must be one of the most cathartic ways to get through a tough breakup.
Where do I hear more?
PJ Harvey has been an active solo artist since the end of the ’80s up until today. For fans of the Polly Jean’s well-worn rougher side, there’s plenty to discover. Early efforts generally show a more aggressive sound than on her later works, both musically and lyrically.
Harvey’s acclaimed 1992 debut Dry is popularly cited as Kurt Cobain’s sixteenth favorite album ever in his posthumously-published Journals. Make sure not to miss out on tracks such as “Sheela-Na-Gig,” “Happy and Bleeding” and “Dress.” Her sophomore follow-up, Rid Of Me (1993), with its thematic focus on revenge and the critique of traditional masculinity, was selected one of the Best Albums of the Nineties by Rolling Stone. Standout cuts include “Rid Of Me,” “50ft Queenie” and “Man-Size.”
To Bring You My Love (1995) was PJ Harvey’s first major commercial success and is regarded as her big breakthrough. The most well-known single “Down By the Water” received extensive airplay, both on radio and on MTV. This also marked Harvey’s first collaboration with producer Flood (U2, Depeche Mode, Nine Inch Nails) with whom she has collaborated on her next release, 1998′s Is This Desire?, and the celebrated Let England Shake (2011).
Following the success of Stories… it took Harvey four years to finish her next studio album, Uh Huh Her (2004), which she singlehandedly produced and played all the instruments on. Though it received moderate critical feedback, the album was a commercial success, peaking at number 12 on the U.K. albums charts. The singles “The Letter” and “Shame” are considered among Harvey’s best songs.
White Chalk (2007) is something of an under-loved gem, finding the singer separating herself from her beloved guitar to discover a new instrument: the piano. Despite her lack of expertise on the keys, Harvey decided to write all the songs for the album on it, creating a completely new and haunting sound.
PJ Harvey’s latest release, Let England Shake, is possibly the most appreciated of her career. In uncompromising terms, the album takes on England’s history, lyrically addressing themes of war, conflict and politics. Let England Shake won the 2011 Mercury Prize and was rated the best album of the year by at least 16 different publications. A heavy and majestic album that you want to listen to from beginning to end, over and over again.
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