Lipstick Traces

"She is a medieval sorceress who is conjuring music out of spells. She is both a conjurer of storms and a prisoner of love" - Dorian Berger, creator of one of many unofficial PJ Harvey fan pages on the internet.

Polly Harvey has a problem with nutters, in particular one woman who's been trying to 'make friends' with her for about five years. It's difficult, living in a small village, what obsessions one might unleash just by the mention of someone's domicile. When I go to meet Ms Harvey in the countryside hotel in which she conducts most of her interviews, she is posed carefully by the window, silver tea service laid out in front of her. In the hotel's bar, most people know each other and the landlady stands chatting with them. Polly turns to me and offers a radiant smile. She has a beautiful, soft face with flawless skin and thick-lashed green eyes. Every so often, her Botticelli mouth erupts into laughter. She is of average height with tiny proportions - a tiny neck, tiny shoulders, tiny wrists. But, like a dancer, she has tight, sinewy muscles and perfect
control over her movements. Dressed in an asymmetric black skirt and tiny T-emblazoned with a pair of pink lips, she looks like a loft-living fashion stylist or designer, but she repeatedly stresses that she feels most at home in this intimate town, surrounded by the people she's known since her childhood.
Those who expect her to be a crazed harridan or pain junkie, dragging the remnants of a broken heart across the plains, would be desperately disappointed by the strength and serenity she exudes. She talks as though she only made the transition from the bad old days very recently, and stops herself intermittently, afraid of sounding like a self-help manual. Certain things crop up time and time again in her conversation: you have to actively 'work on yourself' and discover your identity; you have to relax into life, and let things happen; you must learn how to love yourself; you attract whatever vibe you give out; you mustn't be afraid of change. But it must be said that change has been the keyword for Harvey's whole musical career, and I suspect her 'rebirth', as she jokingly calls it, will also herald a new, unique complexity in her work. From the first two albums, Dry and Rid of Me, Harvey's music always linked the
artistic inextricably with the personal. Packed with hoarse, semi-operatic vocals, psychobilly guitar playing and a litany of pain-wracked vignettes, they made for uneasy illicit, thrilling listening. The pop world thought she was strange, an ingenue occupying the darker side of the Bjork coin. Photographers portrayed her as a knot of bones clad in black, often with a
quirky prop: cashmere shorts' a push-up bra; a slash of fine pink lipstick' killer high heels. By the time of the smash 1995 album To Bring You My Love, the sounds and the visuals came together perfectly. Touring the world with U2, Polly Harvey belted out her tunes of fear and longing to enthralled crowds. This time, the music was a more complicated mix of bluegrass, country and folk underscored by industrial noise, and Polly was truly a sight to see. A witch's staff, a pink catsuit or a long red satin gown accompanied a face whose every inch was painted, defined, highlighted with scarlet lipstick, jade eye-shadow and lashings of mascara. Photographers concentrated on that incredible face, with its morbid planes, and parodied '40s film star poses - chin thrust forward, eyes narrowed. It was Harvey's lowest point, as it happens, a time when she lost control of what was going on in her life.
That period in time was only three years ago, but it seems like ancient history . The new album Is This Desire? will be a classic of the next 10 if not 20 years. It has the impeccable timing of jazz, the arrangement of a classic dance track, the depth of an orchestral symphony and the
emotional charge of gospel. Controlled, humorous, vast, its high-gloss production will ensure it's the comedown record of choice for a nation of clubbers. The rough edges of the previous work have been softened into something far more sincere, the tone is no longer angry but elegiac. Sexy and revelatory, each track sounds like the score to a different genre of
movie: you have rolling garage album functions as a collection of stories, of personae. Women - characters called Catherine, Angelene, Elise - live out their lives under Harvey's gaze. Harvey no longer sounds personally vulnerable, and her voice, now trained into richness and a range spanning banshee opera and snarling soul, is the voice of someone who's travelled the world and seen it all.
Polly's jumpy today. In the evening she's got a preview to go to. Not some minimalist gallery opening in London but the celebration of an exhibition she's contributed to with people she was at college with down here. At the local arts centre, her work stands out amongst the playful
installations, gorgeous beaded jewellery and paintings of her peers and friends: a series of Polaroid's and collected images inspired by her songwriting . Some of the amazing acid-hued photos - of the sunset, of the beach, of horses - are scribbled over with musical annotation and the exhibition catalogue is an interview with Polly and her best friend Sid. They are pictured together, both grinning madly. "I lost it for a while, didn't I?" she is quoted as saying to him.
Whatever she lost, she has gained something immeasurably better in the process. The album, coupled with her new-found confidence, will guarantee that this isn't just desire, it's true love.

Bidisha for Dazed and Confused.