The concept of romantic love has been beaten into oblivion, destroyed during
the long history of song. The types of discourse are cliché: Excitement
or angst before the love is consummated. This is one. Emotional pain
based on misunderstanding, betrayal or boredom once the relationship
has been formed. This is two. A sense of freedom or longing based on
what was lost once the relationship has ended. This is three. All love
songs fall into one of these categories. To take it one step further,
it would be fair to say that every artist has a "love song" and that
listeners have heard every possible permutation of these three themes.
That is, until they hear PJ Harvey's brazenly titled seventh full-length
album, Uh Huh Her.
The self-produced album, which features Harvey performing all the music with the exception of percussion (handled by longtime colleague Rob Ellis), mines this well-covered territory with an honest eye and an unfettered ferocity. The discoveries on these 14 tracks provide a new, necessary voice to the trials and tribulations of love in Harvey's recognized soul-baring style.
From the outset it is clear that Harvey has had a rough go of it since we've
last seen her. Whereas Stories From the City, Stories From the Sea were
lush odes to urban and rural living, Uh Huh Her is an emotional train
wreck. On opener "The Life & Death of Mr. Badmouth," she decries a lover who
has emotionally abused her by returning to the image of cleansing his mouth with
water, a central and recurring theme from her debut Dry. "Shame" follows
and centers on the dual meaning of the title, as the narrator feels shamed by
the breakdown in the relationship and shame for the treatment she endured on
behalf of this love. Both songs move beyond the typical romance-song archetype
by addressing abuse and the fallout from it in an uncomfortably naked manner.
A rebirth occurs with third track "Who the Fuck?" as Harvey returns to the bleeding vocal style and production from her second album Rid of Me in order to empower herself against this abusing mate. The track is abrasive, corrosive and a painful listen exactly what it needs to be. After this revelation Harvey goes through the worries of a young bride speaking with her mother ("Pocket Knife"), the lost art of writing the love letter as a metaphor for physical longing ("The Letter"), new love as a type of chemical dependence ("The Slow Drug"), and the difficulty of emotional detoxification ("It's You"). Never once does she back away from difficult topics or concepts; rather she tackles them full on in a manner that suggests a person looking for some sort of religious salvation through love.
While the lyrical content of these songs may be a difficult ride, the musical accompaniment matches the words measure for measure. After the pop sheen and straightforward production of Stories, Harvey takes the lessons learned on that album and steps backward in time to complete the sonic picture with some of the tricks that made Rid of Me so impenetrable. Like the Steve Albini-produced Rid of Me, there are numbers that rely heavily on loud/quiet dynamic backed by distorted vocals and the chainsaw buzz of her guitar ("Who the Fuck?," "The Life & Death of Mr. Badmouth" and "Cat on the Wall") to enhance their message. There are others lulling you into a safe sense of complacency (the U2-centric "The Desperate Kingdom of Love"). Harvey also hasn't completely shed her reincarnation as shaman punk-poet, in the mold of Patti Smith, that made Stories so popular. Shades of Smith's acoustic Native American poetry, best evidenced on Easter, pop up on "No Child of Mine," "Shame" and "Pocket Knife." This combination of acoustic chant-heavy balladry on some tracks and scorching guitar feedback on others makes Uh Huh Her a troubling record that may take multiple listens to be truly appreciated.
Once you get acclimatized to the torturous messages and the dynamic, diverse musical accompaniment shifts from song to song, it becomes obvious that Uh Huh Her is one of Harvey's most rewarding albums. Despite the abuse, addiction and loss she writes about, the message is overwhelmingly positive by the album's end. Gospel tinged "The Desperate Kingdom of Love" reveals her laid bare, willing to embrace the fragile and delicate chance of love again and again.
Somehow, after all she's been through, Harvey still believes in love and is willing to place herself in harm's way over and over to achieve these miraculous highs and lows. Uh Huh Her may put on a tough-guy act, but at heart it is a love song, not to a person but to the nature of love itself, a relationship that is much more about the means than the ends.