Wednesday, February 9, 2011

1998: Liz, Love & Polly

I mentioned in my Pazz&Jop commentary that four women had won the critics' poll back in the 90s (and none since). Three of them are discussed in the review beneath (the fourth was Lucinda Williams). Of the three, the only one who's really stayed at the top of her game is Polly Harvey, and the leaks from her upcoming release indicate this one is no exception. As for Courtney Love's heroic journey, I think it's safe to say it hasn't ended in triumph so far, though last year's comeback was nothing to snort at. Liz Phair, on the other hand, probably alienated her base as much as Barack Obama did - and just as with Obama, not all the criticism was completely fair. She offers a free sample from her latest at her official site, which is well worth checking out.

If Liz Phair seems more confident on record than onstage, Courtney Love is just the opposite. It’s not that her commanding stage presence doesn’t translate to the studio; her crunchy bandmates and crack production team help her give definitive readings of her songs. It’s just that the songs themselves come from someone deeply wounded, broken at an early age.

Phair’s middle-class upbringing left her prepared to take on the world. She says the only expectations her parents had of her was that she would do very well at whatever she chose. It shows in her alternately wry, sarcastic, ironic and blunt songwriting. Love’s oeuvre speaks of a child beaten down at an early age, and an adult woman who may never feel fully whole as a result. But what gives her music such power is that she’ll never let that stop her.

Courtney Love is on a heroic journey, and continues to triumph in spite of herself. She’s reinvented herself many times now, and indeed, the first line of her third album, Celebrity Skin, is "make me over." She’s not talking about her Versace gowns and surgical enhancements, either. For Love and the millions in her audience, just surviving is a victory. But her new songs make it clear she means to do more than just survive.

Stylistically, this record is more varied than her breakthrough, Live Through This. Her trademark growls and howls remain, and the band Hole retains all of its explosiveness, but the songs are bathed in a warmer pop sensibility. And while none of them qualify for what a local radio station likes to call "stress-free," you could almost call this a mellower Courtney Love. Still, I can’t wait to see her tackle this material in front of an audience.

Arriving fresh on the heels of Phair and Love’s long-delayed releases is the fourth album from the little Welsh dynamo Polly Jean Harvey. And while I’ll yield to no one in my admiration for Liz and Courtney, PJ takes it a step further. She combines it all in one package: the broken child and the swaggering adult, the cynicism and the irony, the heartfelt yearning and the hearty power, the raw sexuality and the anguished loneliness.

Harvey just keeps getting better with every album, and has long since achieved a stature shared by few of her contemporaries of either gender. Like Jagger and Bowie, she’s not afraid to embrace androgyny. In fact, at times it’s hard to tell if it’s a man or a woman singing. The critic Marjorie Garber has suggested that great bisexual rock stars like Elvis Presley, the aforementioned Messrs. Jagger and Bowie, or young Michael Stipe, owe much of their stardom to their dual appeal to both male and female audiences. The same goes for bisexual film stars like Marlene Dietrich or Montgomery Clift. And while Harvey’s private life hasn’t been as much a matter of public discussion, she exudes that same aura of pansexual power.

And it pervades her music as well. The analogies are implicitly drawn between sexual and spiritual yearning, or between both and the desire for personal fulfillment. Her last full-length solo effort, the award-winning To Bring You My Love (1996), was steeped in the blues tradition. The new album, titled Is This Desire?, is more varied, with arrangements ranging from contemporary alt-rock to haunting echoes of 20th century composers. But everywhere throughout is her magnificent voice, howling, pleading, cajoling, whispering and generally getting under your skin. Is This Desire? is easily one of the finest releases of the year so far, hands down.

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