For the most part, the PJ Harvey collaborations are gritty lo-fi guitar numbers and Nick Cave's are dark piano ballads--it's difficult to pick highlights as the quality is unwavering but the catchy chorus and rolling guitar hooks of "My Friends Have" and "No Child of Mine" are instantly memorable. The last two tracks differ greatly from the rest, both sounding like nothing else on the album. Nick Cave's "Desperanto" is a bizarre hybrid of guitar-based gangster funk, screaming rockabilly sax and a rabble shouting Jim Morrison lyrics, all topped off with a melody akin to Madonna's "Vogue"--it does sound as odd as the description but is a truly incredible piece of music. No less contemporary is "City of Quartz", a kind of Rogers and Hammerstein number voiced on a collection of clock chimes--again, incredible stuff. With absolutely no filler, Before the Poison is a truly great album that is quirky, cutting edge and ridiculously easy to listen to.--David Trueman
Nick Cave's three songs, co-produced with Hal Wilner, are by far the strongest here. The haunting "There is a Ghost" and "Crazy Love", the latter bearing no relation at all to the lazy Van Morrison tune of the same name, feature members of the Bad Seeds plus Cave on tinkling piano. They evoke rainy European boulevards and Proustian moments: classic Cave and a perfect match for Faithfull's measured vocals. The third Cave composition, "Desperanto", crackles like pylons in a thunderstorm. Faithfull raps over a howling sax and wailing Hammond, while the Bad Seeds chant (from the neighbouring room, it seems) lines by Jim Morrison. Yes, it's that odd.
Other than Faithfull's slowburn drawl, there is little in Harvey's contributions - especially "The Mystery of Love" and the oblique "In the Factory" - to distinguish them from Harvey's own recordings: good news, if you like Polly Harvey's work. "My Friends Have" is built around a typically taut Harvey riff and throbs along in a punky kind of way. The languid "Before the Poison", another Faithfull/Harvey co-write, is an odd choice for the title track.
Heavy on the minor chords, Damon Albarn's ballad, "Last Song", resembles Coldplay or Radiohead, with a nod towards the mordant Jacques Brel. Musically speaking, how much further has the former-Blur frontman travelled than his Britpop rivals?
Closing the album on an unsettling note is Jon Brion's nursery-lullaby "City of Quartz", played on a variety of obscure instruments, such as the "paintbrush" guitar, toy piano and "fake glockenspeil". It's apparently about the fall of Babylon, although it may well be inspired by the Mike Davies book of the same name, which portrays a dystopic Los Angeles. If a film is ever made of Davies' City of Quartz, here's the perfect soundtrack.
Before the Poison is a career high for Ms Faithfull and a timely release in the wake of acclaimed new albums from Cave and Harvey. --Rob Webb
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