Saturday, 22 October 2016

A Journey with a Singer, Part 6: 'Stories from the City, Stories from the Sea' (2000)

More nonsense is talked about Stories than any other bit of PJH’s output. It was her ‘New York’ album, it was her discovery of optimism and contentment after years of misery. It’s true that she said she wanted it to be ‘sumptuous’, ‘lovely’, and ‘beautiful’, and the music was much more conventional than any of her work thereto. It’s true, also, that it’s still, far and away, her most commercially successful recording. But close listening reveals how, beneath that, it’s deeply conflicted and ambiguous, asking, over and over again, whether love is really enough to counter the horrors of existence, and never reaching a clear answer.

At the time I didn’t really give Stories the benefit of a close listening. I was too much biased by all the ludicrous pre-publicity which seemed to be intent on crowing about Polly’s new-found ‘normality’, which, it would turn out, was as much of a mask as any of her other guises. A mainstream music world was rejoicing in the apparent capitulation of one of its sharpest thorns-in-the-side. I also found Thom Yorke of Radiohead’s presence on ‘This Mess We’re In’ entirely troubling, as I’d concluded from the example of Kate Bush’s The Red Shoes some years before that getting your famous chums to perform on your records is a sign of impending creative exhaustion (PJ fans like to praise the demo version of this track which only has her voice on it). I could tell that Stories was beautiful, and I could thoroughly enjoy some of the pieces, not least the way ‘This Wicked Tongue’ hurls bitter accusations against God and yet locates existential conflict inside as well; but the album’s subtleties would pass me by until much later. At the time it felt rather as though we were on the brink of losing a fellow trenchmate in the war for truth and beauty. I wouldn’t have been at all surprised if she’d decided to go out on a high note and hang up her guitar afterwards. I was, of course, and thankfully, very, very wrong – although, as it transpired, the guitar’s days were indeed numbered.

[The picture is the one Harvey and Maria Mochnacz suggested as the cover for the record. Had Island Records agreed, I wonder whether all the reviewers would have taken the view of it they did. In the event, as we know, Island threw up their hands in horror, and Harvey & Mochnacz sent instead a snap of the singer in New York which they contemptuously described as 'Posh Spice out shopping' - and so the die was cast ...]

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