Matthew Hittinger on P.J. Harvey’s Is This Desire?


Ah, 1998. A big year for me. Half-way through college. Getting serious about writing poetry. I had just experienced a year of coming into an adult consciousness and skin to which I still feel connected. It was the year of first deaths, both my grandmothers dead on the same day, one year apart. It was the year of first love with another boy. It was the year that brought us the spiritual Madonna on her Ray of Light album. But I’m not going to write about my diva here, how the lyrics of “Mer-Girl” still haunt me (and where you’ll find Madonna at her most poetic, the standard to which I hold her, which leads to chronic frustration when she opts for the clichéd lyrics of so many of her tunes). No, I’m going to write about a different album that came out that year, one that imposed itself on my creative, poetic mind more than any other during those years: PJ Harvey’s Is This Desire?

I lived off campus by this point, in my own apartment, across from one of the lone independent music stores in town called Play It Again. All the CDs were shelved in these wooden hand-made units that were just tall enough to slip a jewel case in, and where you could spend hours browsing imports and rare EPs and maxi-singles. It’s where I went on Tuesdays to get my latest album releases.

Is This Desire? came out that Autumn, I remember that clearly, the crisp air, the leaves turning. If Madonna was my spring-summer record of 1998, PJ was my autumn-winter record, and not just because the track “My Beautiful Leah” has that prolonged listing of the Autumn months: “I swear you would remember / Black hair, brown eyes / Late September…October…November…December…” And every year I have to listen to it when the leaves start turning, when that first hint of chill enters the air, when our layers return and the darkness comes early. It’s a ritual, like reading H.D.’s Trilogy every year on Christmas Eve.

What draws me to this album: the poetic lyrics, the heavy bass, the raw vocals. The women featured in so many of the tracks have an empowered sorrow that’s intoxicating: from the opening lyrics “My first name Angelene / prettiest mess you’ve ever seen” (“Angelene”) to the dual Catherines: “Catherine de Barra / you’ve murdered my thinking” (“Catherine”) and Saint Catherine of the Wheel:

Catherine liked high places
High up on the hills
A place for making noises
Noises like the whales
Here she built a chapel with
Her image on the wall
A place where she could rest and
A place where she could wash
and listen to the wind blow

She dreamt of children’s voices
And torture on the wheel… (“The Wind”)

To the missing beautiful Leah, “Did you see her walking? /Did she come around here, Sir?” and “Even as I held her / She went out looking for someone / looking for someone” (“My Beautiful Leah”) to these lyrics from “A Perfect Day Elise”:

He got lucky got lucky one time
Hitting with the gin in room 509
She turned her back on him, facing the frame
Said “Listen, Joe, don’t you come here again.”

White sun scattered all over the sea
He could think of nothing but her name, ‘Elise’
God is the sweat running down his back
The water soaked her blonde hair black

All these women seem to be illumined “under electric light” and it’s that industrial glow that makes them beautiful. Like in “Joy” where we shift from the first person of “Angelene” to the third person of “Joy was her name / A life un-wed / Thirty years old / Never danced a step” and in “No Girl So Sweet” shouting “How much more can you take from me? / I’d like to take you inside my head / I’d like to take you inside of me.”

At times I felt the album was describing my inner state: “My hair longer than it’s ever been” (“The Sky Lit Up”) as I had grown out my hair to my shoulders in an act of defiance over the short hairdos I found on gay men, and as I entered into my college obsession with Goddess culture and the ritual of Venus renewing herself yearly, that image of Botticelli’s Goddess on the seashell propelling my need for longer tresses.

My favorite track to this day is “The Garden” with its cymbal-ticking beginning and heavy bass. In all these songs about women, the song stands out as it has two men at its center. I see it as a revision, no Adam and Eve present as you would expect with such a song title, but a revised story trafficking in Biblical myth while extending it someplace else. It starts with a “he” that I couldn’t help but picture as me “walking in the garden” of the newly found sexuality open to me, “walking in the night” in the confusion of being alone with that, joined “by another with his lips” that first lover, who says:

‘Won’t you come and be my lover?’
‘Let me give you a little kiss?’
and he came, knelt down before him
and fell upon his knees
said, ‘I will give you gold and mountains
if you stay a while with me…”

Who are these men? Adam and Satan? Two angels? Lucifer tempting Christ? The kneeling down before him still gives me that sexual charge. And the song described how I felt losing that first love, “and he walked a little farther, and he found he was alone.” “There was trouble / taking place” pretty much summed up my psyche that year, coming to terms with death, with love, with love for another man and coming to terms with my sexuality, with love lost. I was “looking at my song-bird,” “looking at his wings” trying to find the words in my own poems to describe this new me, looking at these new wings and not knowing how to fly.

The lyrics are probably her most literary, the vocals her known raw bleats coupled with a new haunting whisper and despair-filled melodic tone. On many of the tracks you have a vocal singing and then a vocal chanting the same lyrics, sometimes in sync, oftentimes layering over each other, sometimes one preceding the other (as in “The Wind”). The sound has at times an industrial vibe, like machines caught in a synchronous loop, coupled with a heavy bleeding bass like in “Joy” or an electronic undercurrent like in “No Girl So Sweet”, and at times propelled by a simple instrument, like the piano in “The River” or the strumming guitar of “Angelene.”

The album art work and sleeve featured both her printed and handwritten lyrics (none of her other albums at the time did) and her hand-written notes about the instrumentation and chords for the songs. There’s a tantalizing list of songs recorded, in “Like” columns to decide what goes on the album, treating us to the titles of many of the record’s B-sides, like “The Bay” and “Rebecca” and “Nina in Sorrow.” I was so obsessed, I even re-wrote the lyrics to “Angelene” as an assignment for my creative writing class changing the title to “Magdalene” imagining that famous Mary of the Bible as I imagine PJ would (the song “The River” makes me think of Mary and Joseph, thanks to PJ posing next to a huge mural of them, Mary on donkey, in the album artwork), with lines like “It lays open like a road” changed to “Legs open like a road” and something about a crown of thorns piercing her thighs through her robes…

Is This Desire? It’s an album I turn to when I need a taste of the sublime, that terrible beauty found in the harsh reality of a woman wronged, of obsessive devotion , of a woman disappeared. It’s an album that reminds me of those months where I was constructing my identity, rejecting stereotypes about being gay that didn’t fit with my understanding of my self or who I wanted to be. It’s an album that helped teach me how to inhabit another skin in a dramatic monologue, how to use an image. It’s an album that helped teach me how to be a poet.

Matthew Hittinger is the author of the chapbooks Platos de Sal, Narcissus Resists, and Pear Slip, winner of the Spire 2006 Chapbook Award. You can follow his blog and read more of his work here.

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