It’s been four years -- four years! -- since the last P.J. Harvey album. I hesitate to say that her new one Uh Huh Her was "worth the wait," because, to steal a line from the old Wolf Brand Chili ads, "well that’s too long!"
But worth the wait or not, this new album is a doozy.
From the first crunching guitar notes of the opening cut "The Life and Death of Mr. Badmouth," longtime fans of Polly Jean will realize that she’s harkening back to the raw, rocking joys of her earliest albums Dry and Rid of Me -- the very records that made us love her in the first place.
And the ragingly bitter lyrics to this song is a long way from the giddy "This is Love" from her last album, Stories From the City Stories From the Sea.
"Cos everything is poison," Harvey spits in "Mr. Badmouth." "You'll be the unhappy one/Your lips taste of poison/You're gonna be left alone … Your bad mouth has killed off everything we have."
The first half or so of the album is marked by loud grating guitar riffs, (played by Harvey herself,), complimenting her voice, which can go from a sexy, low, bluesy croon to high piercing cries.
While the guitar sounds like it might explode in "The Letter" (not to be confused with the old Box Tops hit), the lyrics are surprising sentimental, expressing a sensual longing for pre e-mail days.
"Who is left that/Writes these days?/You and me/We'll be different/Take the cap/Off your pen/Wet the envelope/Lick and lick it."
But the second half of Uh Huh, Her consist mostly of quieter tracks. The best of these -- including "The Slow Drug," "The Desperate Kingdom of Love," "The Darker Days of Me and Him." are brooding and ominous, like an eye in an emotional hurricane. You can tell by the titles that these aren’t going to be joy rides.
For instance, the sound is somewhat softer on "Pocket Knife" -- strummed guitar suggesting Mid-Eastern music. But the lyrics are no less harsh. Tackling a theme as old as the old folk tune "I Never Shall Marry," Harvey makes her matrimonial reluctance very clear.
"Please don't make my wedding dress/I'm too young to marry yet/Can you see my pocket knife?/You can't make me be a wife."
And in case the implied threat isn’t clear, by the last verse she sings, "White material will stain/My pocket knife's gotta shiny blade."
The photo array of the CD cover might remind old-timers of the old Rod Stewart line from the song "Every Picture Tells a Story": "Comb my hair in a thousand ways …" In other words, she looks as if she’s searching for an identity.
Fortunately her songs -- be they loud or soft, bitter or loving, sultry or hysterical -- maintain a consistent soulfulness. She knows who she is.
*A Ghost Is Born by Wilco. The thing I like most about this album is the same thing that first grabbed me about P.J. Harvey’s new one: the loud obnoxious guitars.
Listen to the first song, "At Least That’s What You Said." It starts off as a slow, dreary, piano-based tune with Jeff Tweedy singing, "When I sat down on bed next to you/ you started to cry …" (This is at least the second Wilco song with references to domestic violence, the other being "She’s Ajar" from Summerteeth.)
It goes on for a couple of verses. But just before you start thinking that Tweedy’s acquired some kind of Joni Mitchell complex, Tweedy comes in with a pounding guitar -- the ghost of John Lennon and echoes of Don’t Bring Me Down" are in there somewhere -- and the next thing you know the song has mutated into a screaming guitar stomp.
There’s even a crazy guitar solo (is it Tweedy or John Stirratt, Wilco’s longtime bassist who plays guitar on this cuty) in "Hell is Chrome," which sounds like a slow gospel tune filtered through The Velvet Underground’s "Sweet Nothings."
But my favorite guitar freakout is the 10-minute "Spiders (Kidsmoke)," which over a percolating techno pop beat, Tweedy goes psychedelic, recalling acid-drench guitar solos from the daze
But the one huge flaw is "Less Than You Think," in which a sad, slow piano ballad (yes, another one) is inexplicably followed by 12 minutes of grating electronic drone. I love noise and excess as much as anyone, but did we really need a mini-ode to Metal Machine Music?
But as we’ve come to expect on Wilco albums are sweet, simple melodies harkening back to Tweedy’s country-rock days, underlying all their sonic excursions. The hypnotic "Handshake Drugs" and the pop-saavy "The Late Greats" each have melodies that will stick to your brains. And "Muzzle of Bees" is so earthy and folky it’s something you might expect to find on a Pentangle album -- with the guitar rage waiting until the last minute or so to kick in.
In general, this album is less focused and less seamless than Wilco’s last outing, the masterful Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. But like that album, it holds secrets that will take listen after listen to crack.
*Stan By Your Man: I’ve been wishing for Stan Ridgway to do a Santa Fe concert for years. It’s gonna happen Saturday, Aug. 14 at the Paramount. Watch Pasatiempo for more details.
*You’re not dreaming, KSFR is streaming!: In case you haven’t noticed, KSFR is on the internet. Just go the station’s web site, www.ksfr.org . Locals can still listen on your old fashioned radios, (90.7 FM), but be sure to tell your out-of-town friends that Santa Fe Public radio is just a few mouse clicks away.