PJ Harvey spent the first decade of her career surprising her audience: from the furious punk of her first couple of albums, to the aggressive blues of To Bring You My Love to the kitchen-sink, electronic tinges of Is This Desire?, she taught everyone to expect the unexpected in her music. Stories from the City, Stories from the Sea stands out in her catalog for its focus on beautiful melodies and straightforward pop-rock arrangements. It’s also, song-for-song, her most accomplished work.

A significant portion of Harvey’s songs dive into the dark underbelly of humanity, but here, themes of love stand above all else, whether that is love for another, love for New York City or a combination of both. It’s a lived-in album that generates the sound of blossoming romance among the skyscrapers. That passion comes across from the start with “Big Exit,” the wavy harmonium dancing around Harvey’s clean guitar chords. There are few lines about the ecstatic feeling of love as good as “I’m immortal when I’m with you.” “Good Fortune” continues the heady sensation with a brisk guitar rhythm as Harvey sings wonderfully about walking through Chinatown and Little Italy with a partner, taking joy in their conversations. “This Is Love” cuts through any doubts to declare, “I can’t believe life’s so complex/ When I just want to sit here and watch you undress,” as her guitar snarls deeply.

While Harvey brings a directness to her music and words on Stories from the City, Stories from the Sea, she doesn’t give up mystery or friction completely. She understands that those are just as essential parts of love as is devotion or longing. On the gentle sway of “You Said Something,” she describes the setting of looking at Manhattan from a rooftop in Brooklyn, but never reveals what was said that meant so much to her. During “A Place Called Home,” it’s Harvey who offers reassurances to her lover, singing “With love comes the day/ Just hold on to me.” She makes a similar statement over the dry, stripped-back strums of “One Line,” where their hearts are connected and keep each other safe.

Despite the positive affirmations of love found throughout the album, this is still a PJ Harvey record. She knows that pure positivity can devolve quickly into something saccharine. A few tracks throw more discord into the mix, keeping the record grounded in realism rather than starry-eyed fantasies. Sometimes, an amorous moment isn’t meant to bloom. On “This Mess We’re In,” Harvey duets with Thom Yorke for a song about passion quickly won and lost, his vocals pleading, and Harvey’s controlled as she looks towards the New York sunset. The guitars of “Kamikaze” groan with taut, sinister chords with Harvey’s voice moving from speak-singing to frazzled howls, as she tries to avoid a relationship destructive to both sides. “The Whores Hustle and the Hustlers Whore” finds Harvey turning her attention towards the city itself, seeing the cracks in the rat-race, as her guitars rumble like a train speeding through a subway station.

The album closes with a couple of songs that zoom out from relationships or even the city to what they represent at their best instead – freedom, opportunity and life. While “Horses in My Dreams” has a dirge-like quality, with Harvey’s dragged out vocals and the minimalist arrangement, she sings about release: “I have pulled myself clear.” “We Float,” the best closer Harvey’s ever written, dances along with a sharp rhythm, sublime piano work and an uplifting chorus. As she sings about her challenges, it builds to the magnificent chorus where she knows that struggles are temporary and part of existence, so we should “Take life as it comes.” It’s a great sentiment to close out the record.

Although Stories from the City, Stories from the Sea brought a new level of success for Harvey, it also feels like the cap on the remarkable run she had been on since her debut. Acclaim never stopped her from finding new ground before and it certainly didn’t after this record either. Her next release, Uh Huh Her, had a lo-fi, earthy feel that pulled away from the cleaner, straightforward songwriting found here. Over the years, as her sound drifted to different dark and unusual corners, Stories from the City, Stories from the Sea has felt more like an outlier in her career. But that’s also what gives it such staying power. It’s the album that not only proved that Harvey could pursue any style she wants, but also that she’s one of the best songwriters around. And that remains true to this day.

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