PJ Harvey Follows the Lieder

Polly Jean Harvey doesn't much care for the slinky, urban Muzak being piped into the lobby of the Ameritania Hotel in midtown Manhattan. "Ethereal tribal chanting over some programmed disco beat. Wonderful," she deadpans. It's somehow proper that this, the only barbed phrase to cross Harvey's lips in an hour of cheerful, enthusiastic conversation, comes in reference to a matter of musical taste. Sitting across from the singer, one can tell her ears are unusually sensitive to sounds that fail to pass the test of originality.

This critical gaze can be turned inward, as well. When an answer is sounding too predictable, Harvey, 38, prefers to trail off in lieu of completing the sentence. That cautious editorial impulse is also now guiding her songwriting in the second decade of her career. Since riding the wave of alternative rock in the '90s with one peak after another, she has released only two albums in the seven years since her Grammy-nominated "Stories From the City, Stories From the Sea" came out in 2000.

Writer's block has not been the culprit. Rather, a near-constant fear of repetition has slowed Harvey's public output. She now admits to a frank disappointment with her 2004 effort, "Uh Huh Her," which she says is the first time she ever committed the artistic crime of plagiarizing herself.

"There's such a saturation point now," she says. "With everything from music to reality-TV shows. I just don't want to add anything more. There's so much dreadful work. The world doesn't need anything else that's simply adequate. I'm not going to contribute to that."

Of course, path-breaking innovation with each utterance is a tall order for any artist, let alone one who works in the pop idiom—where repetition is something of a comfort (and therefore part of the point, after all). So Harvey solved the problem by forsaking pop, or at least the bawdy, frenzied take on postpunk that first established her name. After a friend gave her a mix CD of selections by Beethoven, Handel and 20th-century composer Henryk Górecki, she was ready to set her next artistic course: learning the piano.

"If it meant taking 10 years [to write another album], that's what I told myself I'd do," she says. Fifty songs later, she had 11 piano-based compositions she was willing to hand over to Island Records (her corporate home since 1992). When asked if the suits blanched at the prospect of releasing a PJ Harvey record with no electric guitar—one instead dominated by a subtle but neophyte technique at the ivories—she says, "I've given them enough peculiar records at this point. It's what they expect."

What the skeptical listener might not expect is just how satisfying her experiments prove to be. When John Lennon abandoned the ornate arrangements of The Beatles' recordings for the scream-therapy basics of "Plastic Ono Band," he was said to be capable of making great rock music with nothing more than a couple of blocks to bang together. On "White Chalk," PJ Harvey creates her own kind of minimalism at the piano, plucking and pounding her way toward a real achievement, where the formal intimacy of chamber music is fused with the feral emotional impact of rock and roll.

"The Devil," the album's first track, weds baroque piano chords to percussion beating out a primitive 4/4-stomp (in concert, a metronome does those honors). Less driving, yet every bit as good, is "Silence," where, just after the halfway point, steadily descending intervals for piano and voice originally hinted at in the song's opening bars march Harvey's vocals forward in the mix, from a whisper to a full-throated lament.

Yes, this album's subject matter is unremittingly dark. The closest thing to happiness seems to arrive in the song "When Under Ether," as the ministrations of a nurse give comfort to a woman who, it would appear, is about to have an abortion. But as with the films of Ingmar Bergman, to get hung up on the depressing particulars of a narrative is to miss the sensual, life-affirming deliverance provided in the telling of the tale.

Upon the mention of Bergman, Harvey's eyes light up. "I'm not, in particular, familiar with his work," she says, though she's clearly happy the door to a broader discussion of art has been opened. Harvey cites Stanley Kubrick as her favorite film director, waxes rhapsodic over Goya's late-period drawings, then pivots quickly to advocate for the value of 17th-century English composer William Lawes. She says listening to Arvo Pärt's "Tabula Rasa" is so devastating ("touching the very essence of being") that she can only do it once a year.

After that, she heaps praise on Nina Simone and Howlin' Wolf, saying she could "never in a million years add to what [they've] done." (On the latter count, she's perhaps a bit modest. Her version of "Wang Dang Doodle" is one of the few covers to do the song justice.) Bringing her rapid-fire account of artistic preferences to a close, she settles on praising the charcoal sketches of symbolist painter Odilon Redon. "Not the pastels, which I also like, but the charcoal sketches. Dark. Remarkable. I'm amazed it's the same person who [did] the pastels."

The way Harvey lingers over the stylistic variance in Redon's output is telling. She has spent her career in pop music resisting the categories of others. After being lumped in, lazily, with the neofeminist "riot grrrl" trend of female singers in the U.S. in the early '90s, she bared her breasts on a magazine cover, as if to say, "not so fast." Now, after a complete overhaul of her sonic aesthetic, her overarching purpose seems clear. This isn't cynical pop re-invention along the commercial lines of a Madonna or a Bowie. Rather, Harvey is defending the artist's right to be protean, to either change guise as the muse dictates or keep silent—all without fearing the consequences of the marketplace. How rock and roll is that?

PJ Harvey Follows the Lieder | Culture