Hungry for Stink

Following the scent of PJ Harvey—and coming up short.

Anyone who's ever had a cat knows they feel the need to rub their faces on just about everything you own, including your legs. They do it a lot. It's akin to graffiti tagging—a marking of one's territory. People have smells, too. The more terrain they've touched, the more recognizable they are.

One chick who stinks to high heaven is veteran songstress PJ Harvey—not in terms of actual odor (I wouldn't know), but in terms of attributes. Harvey's covered a lot of ground—scorching rock, voluptuous blues, ethereal hymns—on each of her six albums. Even though she's never marked the same exact tree twice, her aroma remains the same. "Put the pen to the paper/press the envelope with my scent," she sings on "The Letter," from the new Uh Huh Her (Island). The problem is that the album's flecks of genius scent are so dissipated, when you latch onto them looking for more, you—and she—come up short.

On Uh Huh Her, Harvey's ravaged poetics and twisted wrath swathed in desperate pleas for love among the ruins come fewer and farther between; there are few unhinged rushes like the kind felt on "Meet Ze Monster" (1995's To Bring You My Love), "Big Exit" (2000's Stories From the City, Stories From the Sea), or "Dress" (1992's Dry, her debut). Though her leaping, lunging voice remains hypnotic, it's the frosty, ineffectually controlled music that doesn't stick. Instead of grandly displaying the goods the way she did on Stories From the City, this time around she nestles herself into the tunes; slinky swarms of heavy chords and plunging riffs are about as decadent as it gets. Ironically, the noncomplex arrangements on Uh Huh Her somehow heighten her essence. It's the first album Harvey produced for herself—she also played all the instruments except drums—and the dynamic interactivity that sparks her best work seems to be missing here.

At first, a single soured relationship (with filmmaker Vincent Gallo, the rumor goes; Harvey dedicates one track on the new album, "The End," to him) feels like Uh Huh Her's main focus. But after a while, the songs begin to sound more general. Harvey focuses on how awful and bewildering it is when love disappoints, but she's beyond seething and weeping—she's half bummed and half embarrassed. "The Life and Death of Mr. Badmouth" chronicles some dude with halitosis of the soul. Repeating "wash it out" like a voodoo spell, Harvey attempts to systematically rinse his sullied fingerprints from her flesh. On "Shame," Harvey's cries gorgeously lilt upward as she tsk-tsks in spurned disbelief: "I jumped for you into the flame. . . . Shame is the shadow of love." Driven more by attitude than anger, the spastic, brash "Who the Fuck" cuts down a would-be suitor who tried to "straighten [her] curls." Cranked up on old-school, live-wire chords, she wails with a frazzled, hoity-toity air. Air-kissed by hollow, woody percussion, "You Come Through" is a sparse yet intensely heartfelt thank-you; the album's most imposing track, "Cat on the Wall," pulses and roars.

At times, Harvey's lyrics are so flat and predictable you can sing them before she does. (Note to artists: Don't rhyme "finger" with "linger" ever again. Just don't.) "How's the world slip by so fast?/How does anybody last?" she ponders in a mousy voice on "Pocket Knife." Compare that to "I can't believe life's so complex/When I just want to sit here and watch you undress," from Stories' "This Is Love." On second thought, don't. Ironically, the album delivers the most chills within excruciatingly minute details. Harvey's regimented whispers hover over steam-engine tooting in "The Slow Drug," pricking ears with the sound of her pulpy lips parting before she speaks. But what really lingers about Uh Huh Her is how lazy it feels. It gets by on precious, concentrated particles suspended in a frugal abyss—a drop of essential oil dispersed in a gallon of tap water—but too often it feels like it was made with the idea that, at this point in time, there's no reason for Harvey to put her whole self out there.

PJ Harvey plays the Showbox with Knife & Fork at 8 p.m. Sun., Oct. 31. Sold out.

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