Sometimes heading for more calmer, more easily accessible waters is a good thing. Take PJ Harvey for instance, for years she had been known as a lady with a penchant for the shouty, confrontational and vitriolic. The trouble was she always seemed to possess an unfulfilled desire to create music that one day may get played on day time radio, and during the later half of the 90s it was becoming obvious that this desire was being suppressed in favour of making more musically offbeat albums. With Stories From The City, Stories From The Sea those desires were finally met and to everyone’s surprise it was done without compromising what made PJ Harvey so enjoyable.
Okay, okay, so admitting that Stories From The City, Stories From The Sea, is your favourite PJ Harvey album is something that the majority of us only feel comfortable confessing in private, but for me it is the one that I revisit the most frequently, just because it still seems her most out of character. This is the album where PJ Harvey temporarily halted her bewildering shifts in image and appeared to head towards something almost approximating the mainstream. True, this did cause some worry in her long term fans, who would have much rather seen the return of the strange ferrel creature that looked out from the cover of Rid of Me, but that’s missing the point somewhat. This was a snapshot of the mature, grown up PJ Harvey, older, wiser and embracing her life experiences.
Stories From The City, Stories From The Sea is a beautifully produced album. It rumbles, it rocks, it can sulk, it can be amazingly tender, but at the end of the day, to my ears at least, it’s the best sounding PJ Harvey album out there. The guitars are crisp, Polly Jean sounds utterly confident in her vocal abilities and the band are at the top of their collective game. Again, there are those that would much rather have a return to more raw and aggressive material similar to that found on Rid Of Me, but to be honest this more radio friendly sound really does suit PJ, and she certainly runs rings around Thom Yorke on the couple of tracks he appears on here.
What those fans calling for more aggressive material often over look is the fact that Stories From The City, Stories From The Sea is home to some of PJ Harvey’s finest rockers. “Big Exit”, “Kamikaze”, “This Is Love” and (on the UK version at least) “This Wicked Tongue” can continue to stand proud in the company of any of PJ Harvey’s output and they’re radio-friendly. Okay, perhaps the quality control dips a little towards the end of the album and maybe this isn’t PJ Harvey at her most challenging, but maybe, just maybe, she just wanted an album that had crossover potential.
Those that weren’t a fan of her turn tumour commercial material were no doubt relieved when PJ Harvey followed up this album with the considerably denser and more opaque Uh Huh Her, and the albums she has released since then have been among her most well received and have lifted her to a creative plane that few acts achieve. For me though, Stories From The City, Stories From The Sea is still the PJ Harvey album I reach for before any of her others.