On “Stories From the City, Stories From the Sea,” PJ Harvey Accidentally Predicted America

As the mercurial British artist’s fifth album turns 20, its unintentional foreshadowing of the U.S.’s bleak future remains unsettling.

Coming from Britain’s most chameleonic musical export, the shouted lyric “I want a pistol! I want a gun!” remains a jarringly American sentiment. Heard at the outset of PJ Harvey’s fifth album Stories From the City, Stories From the Sea, this line was then Harvey’s most U.S.-evoking to date. Musically, though, her prior albums were rife with American musical influence: On her clamorous 1992 debut album Dry and her third album, 1995’s varied and biblical To Bring You My Love, she respectively built grunge and blues backdrops for bracing tales of despair. The album between the two, Harvey’s uncompromisingly abrasive 1993 pinnacle Rid of Me, pulled equally from both genres. Though she mined the distinctly British influence of trip-hop for 1998’s often-underrated Is This Desire?, one of that album’s music videos took place in the heart of the Big Apple. That’s exactly where Stories, released twenty years ago today, gets its start.

Of course, despite the gun-toting salvo of Stories’ storming opener “Big Exit,” New York isn’t a haven of American gun culture in the same way that, say, Virginia is. Instead, New York is all in Stories’ presentation (Harvey wrote much of the album while living there for nine months in 1999). On the album’s artwork, Harvey is clearly in Manhattan and well-dressed for the part. Her love of legendary New Yorker and punk poet laureate Patti Smith pervades her unprecedented mostly-not-gloomy guitar work, and the vocal vibrato of “Good Fortune” is supreme Horses-core. It remains debated whether Harvey’s newly upbeat guitars and lucid vocals were attempts to recapture the mainstream success she almost achieved with To Bring You My Love, but what’s clear now is that her unabashed enthusiasm for turn-of-the-21st-century New York hides a much darker interior. 

Released just weeks before the Bush vs. Gore presidential election, and less than a year before 9/11, Stories is an unsettlingly prescient view of how the Bush era would accelerate the dystopia in which we currently find ourselves. Revisited just weeks before the 2020 presidential election, the album is a striking referendum on the terrors that accompany city life under proto-fascist rule. After 9/11, lyrics about planes and helicopters eternally overhead resembled New York’s understandably paranoid state; twenty years later, it’s still easy to close your eyes in major American cities and hear those same choppers above multiple times a day, seemingly patrolling (or just searching for) another anti-fascist demonstration.

In Harvey’s Clinton-era dream of New York, these disturbing details were just background noise. “The planes keep winging,” she mutters over a rollicking, starry-eyed eighth-note wash of guitars during the glowing chorus of “A Place Called Home,” which is otherwise a strong plea to a romantic partner. The first lyrics on the Thom Yorke–featuring rock ballad “This Mess We’re In” are Yorke singing “Can you hear them? / The helicopters / I’m in New York,” but it, too, is otherwise a love song. It’s a reminder that even as the police and military fly overhead, even as chaotic cities buzz and bristle and never sleep, everyday romances continue. It’s 2020 city life in a nutshell.

Revisited just weeks before the 2020 presidential election, the album is a striking referendum on the terrors that accompany city life under proto-fascist rule.

Harvey continues to unintentionally predict a future much closer to Stories’ setting throughout the album. The power-chord blast of “Kamikaze” is a prime example: It’s full of references to, as its title suggests, suicide pilots. Sure, in the song’s proper context, “How could that happen again? Where the fuck was I looking? When all his horses came in / And he built a whole army of kamikaze” is ostensibly about her partner continuing to surprise her, but when she describes her setting as “another war zone,” it’s hard not to connect her suicide pilots to the men who flew two planes into the Twin Towers. She might have meant to say that love is a battlefield, but she accidentally forecasted just how literally New York would become one.

Twenty years after Stories’ release, it remains fascinating and disturbing to see how well Harvey’s most accessible, joy-filled album (when Stories survived Rolling Stone’s revisions to its 500 Best Albums of All Time list last month, the newly written blurb still expressed surprise about the LP’s felicity: “Polly Jean Harvey happy?”) accidentally predicted some of its setting’s darkest times. Its twentieth birthday is also its first big-number anniversary to arrive after Harvey’s failure to work through American politics when she intended to do so. Her most recent album, 2016’s The Hope Six Demolition Project, rightly received backlash for engaging in Washington, D.C. poverty tourism and describing American political problems with minimal context and no solutions. Whereas Stories songs such as the ghostly arena-rock highlight “One Line” are ever more chilling for casual mentions of “This world all gone to war,” Hope Six’s “The Community of Hope” is…well, let D.C. politicians tell you for themselves.

A major factor in Hope Six’s failure is, very simply put, white feminism. As most people probably know by now, in white feminism, white women don’t just exclude people who aren’t white (especially Black people)—they speak over them and then, gallingly, claim to speak for them. It’s the same flawed logic that blinds Harvey throughout Hope Six, much of which is inspired by her “windshield tour” of D.C. On “The Community of Hope,” she describes D.C.’s seventh ward as a “drug town, just zombies,” accidentally predicts a Trumpism by asking “The school just looks like a shithole / Does that look like a nice place?” (the question implies the answer), and calls another sight a “pathway of death” immediately before admitting she never attempted to traverse it: “At least that’s what I’m told.” A British white woman briefly touring, but never quite engaging with, an American region that’s 92 percent Black and writing a full album about it (let alone just one widely admonished song) scans as virtue signaling, as attempting to show that, by pointing at something and claiming, “that’s bad,” Harvey has genuine concern for the subject matter at hand.

Twenty years after Stories’ release, it remains fascinating and disturbing to see how well Harvey’s most accessible, joy-filled album accidentally predicted some of its setting’s darkest times.

But this is a reflection on Stories, not Hope Six, right? Well, sure, but now that the latter exists, it’s impossible not to consider its version of America when analyzing the former’s. The albums’ contrast suggests that the best way to get to know a place, its culture, and its people is pretty easy: Fully immerse yourself in it. As Harvey wrote songs about the whirlwind romance that defines Stories, she couldn’t help but detail New York—it’s where she was. That the helicopters, planes, guns, and war are peripheral only makes them more significant; they’re constantly in Harvey’s descriptions because they’re part of everyday life there. 

In Hope Six’s case, D.C. politicians lambasted Harvey because she took a perfunctory glance at a place, its culture, and its people and decided she knew everything about them. Given the rampant bigotry and attendant fascism that currently define the U.S., the difference in approach between Hope Six and Stories reveals an especially important takeaway: Maybe just spending time around people whom you don’t know well before writing off their ideas will discourage their marginalization, their labeling as terrorists, and their targeting for state horrors nobody should experience.

What would such a world look like? It’s not the dystopia Harvey paints on “Big Exit” when she wants a pistol: “Too many cops / Too many guns.” Like much of Stories, this complaint isn’t just a story from the city told after ample time immersed in its lifestyle—it’s a vision and a solution for a place called home. “I live with hope that things can change,” Harvey said in an interview shortly before releasing Stories, which, for the first time in her career, showed this hope—and, in classic PJ Harvey form, the darkness threatening to crush it. FL


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