The deceptively simple album name, Uh Huh Her, nipped from a line by her friend Captain Beefheart, may be more appropriate for a Cool Whip Lite ad campaign, but the rough-and-tumble Polly Jean Harvey has returned. Fans have been mulling over the real meaning of her stylish chop — a jet straw wig levitating above her giant oracular mouth — and the infamous Spice Girls T-shirt, but the thing that’s most worrisome is that she did it again.
Bestilling the hard-line purists who shook their heads at the aural sunshine of 2000’s Stories from the City (“I feel like a bird of paradise”), the cloud banks have drifted back to their rightful possessor, Polly Jean. Uh Huh Her arches back to her more complicated beginnings, a place where raw emotion finds no sanctuary: “Shame, shame, shame … shame is the shadow of love.” She has always taken the juvenilia out of fury, and on this album, her swooping larynx proves ravenous. Arpeggios collapse into a locust’s jagged yell.
To quiet a certain brand of shoddy psychiatry, PJ has informed the world candidly on the soundwaves of BBC radio that making music is not a cathartic experience for her — it’s just very painful. She also said, during her recent interview-a-thon, that the music is not necessarily representative of who she is. Critics’ silent tongue-clucking and outright accusations of lying swiftly followed suite. But on “Who the Fuck,” the anger comes off as both insouciant and incinerating, PJ Harvey playing PJ. In a desperate dance with herself, a wild black humor overpowers the parallel self-loathing. The U.K. edition of Uh Huh Her contains a music video with PJ careening across an apartment and loving on the kitchen. “Fuck,” she yells, before an adolescent’s smile, mentally floodlit, sneaks up on her as she finishes her sentence, “you.” You can tell she’s doing better these days.
Compared to her much earlier work, 1992’s Dry and 1993’s Rid of Me, Uh Huh Her is clearly a more-settled PJ Harvey. Inspired by Russian peasant folk songs, vistas of self-acceptance and clarity rest in “The Pocket Knife.” The size of her blade shrinks. Found within, the small, humbled topaz voice replaces viscous rage. “Slow Drug” ‘s twilight romance and “You Come Through” may signal the dawn of a different PJ Harvey. It’s a less-epic point of view, and that’s okay. But neither mode is any less authentic to her project.
Stories from the City, Stories from the Sea was a trip to the honeymoon suite in Niagara compared to her characteristic fitful deserts and nightmares. Four years later, she’s returned to her role as a beacon of honesty, and the truth never looked less like divinity. Maybe more like a day in the countryside. During her childhood, she used to pull dead fetuses out of the ewes on her hippie parents’ farm.
The album’s balance of lovey-doveyness and tortured exhalations comes as a relief. When she pounded out on Dry, “Put money in your idle hole,” she was the queen of bitches. She’s toned it down to “I long for a land where no man was ever known.” Patriarchy’s biggest nightmare has learned to honor both sides of letting go.