Stories from the City, Stories from the Sea is a good album. Unfortunately it's not a good PJ Harvey album. Harvey's earlier work was brilliant because she tapped into something just below consciousness, something almost primal, an energy that powered her lyrics, voice, and music. She gave the impression that a slight British lass could kick ass just by opening her mouth and launching waves of passion and anger. Each new album was a revelation, something that made listeners say, "Whoa!"
On this, her fifth record, Harvey returns to the three-piece setup with which she began, evoking the spareness of her first album, Dry. The songs on Stories are lean and lyrical, built around gaining and losing love, being a stranger, and finding a home. The record as a whole has a melancholy feel; by the time it ends, you feel as if you too have lived through a loss. Yet something is missing: The songs are good, the music is good, but the PJ Harvey we know has always produced better than good.
Harvey has been training her voice to be an instrument as much as a lyrical device; that is clear on this album. While this singing style worked well on Dance Hall at Louse Point, her experimental project with multi-instrumentalist John Parish, here it seems to take over, replacing distinctiveness with a hypercontrolled flatness. The new album's second song, "Good Fortune," sounds so much like Patti Smith that Harvey should be embarrassed. If one has to pick a role model, Smith is a good one, but since when has Harvey needed a role model?
Part of Harvey's appeal has always been her in-your-face sexuality. But on this album, songs such as "This Is Love" have little of the visceral punch of past efforts; they come off almost as parodies of passion, perhaps because Harvey fans know all too well what voraciousness she can summon.
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Critics have called this album "accessible" over and over again, but to what precisely are we gaining access? This musical lucidity buries what has always been revelatory in Harvey's work: its absolute newness, its truth, its power to communicate what you hadn't even known you were thinking. Harvey's current work is so crafted that it seems fabricated, and fabrication is not what we have come to expect from PJ Harvey.