Uh Huh Her
hen musicians transform into favorites, the idea of “objective critical distance” becomes endangered. PJ Harvey is my single favorite artist. Ever. I’ve argued for years now that her body of work up to this point has been more flawless than that of any other artist I’m familiar with in (semi-)popular music, and, somewhat less hyperbolically, that she’s the most consummately ambitious record-maker of the nineties.
Still, excepting her last album, 2000’s gorgeous and uncharacteristically optimistic Stories from the City, Stories from the Sea, all of her work has taken effort for me to love (rather than just admire). I warmed up more quickly to the almost uncomfortably raw 4-Track Demos than to its radically Albini-ized main course counterpart Rid of Me. Song by song, To Bring You My Love slowly but surely took its place as my favorite PJ album and one of my all-time favorites, though, at first, less than half of its ten tracks appealed to me. Its follow-up, Is This Desire? bored me initially with its spooked-out bubbling-just-below-the-surface ambience (as opposed to the musical molotov cocktails that were her first two records), but once I listened to in the right mood, I soon came to appreciate it nearly as much as its predecessor.
Such will likely turn out to be the case for me with Uh Huh Her, her first album in four years and eighth overall. I simply need to spend more time with it. After a few dozen spins, though, it sounds, I’m genuinely sad to say, like the weakest album she’s made to date (not counting Dance Hall, her teaming with John Parrish). Admittedly, I said the same thing for the first several months I owned Is This Desire? , and now I’d consider it her second-best album. So, go figure.
The only factor that has me slightly doubting that I’ll eventually come to love this new album is the fact that it doesn’t cohere the way a PJ Harvey album should. I mean, if I’m in the mood to listen to a rough, Kim Gordon-ish post-punk number like “Who the Fuck?” then, chances are, I’m not going to also feel like hearing something like the haunting “You Come Through”. For the first time, our heroine has seemed curiously unsure of just what sort of record it is she wanted to make.
Polly describes it as “ugly, disturbing, raw, angry, upsetting sort of material.” Sure, it’s perhaps more distortion-heavy than usual and she’s clearly abandoned Stories’ relatively idealistic view of love and relationships. But those adjectives, which would’ve described Dry, her debut, or even Rid of Me quite well, really only apply to a handful of songs on this new album. I hate to say it, but she might have finally overextended her ambition, resulting in an uneven, discomfiting album.
Uh Huh Her is ultimately a classic case of a whole equaling less than the sum its parts. Every track, including the vaguely Michael Nyman-ish short instrumental number “The End,” is at least very fine, and most are as singularly superb as what we’ve come to expect from the woman responsible for “Sheela-Na-Gig,” “Reeling,” “The Dancer,” and “Angelene.” Songs like “The Pocket Knife,” “You Come Through,” “It’s You,” “The Desperate Kingdom of Love,” and “The Darker Days of Me and Him” would all be worthy inclusions on any future best-of PJ compilation. The rub, though, is that PJ, like such contemporaries as Radiohead and Beck, is an old-fashioned album artist in the best and purest sense. No collection of her “greatest hits” would ever be as vital as any of her individual records. “50 ft. Queenie,” “Send His Love to Me,” and “You Said Something” simply wouldn’t make very much sense on the same CD. Uh Huh Her serves as proof.
Reviewed by: Josh Timmermann
Reviewed on: 2004-06-08