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4.7 out of 5 stars25
4.7 out of 5 stars
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on 25 June 2001
I think IS THIS DESIRE? ranks as one of PJ Harvey's most essential recordings, and is certainly her most underrated achievement to date. Upon its release in September 1998, some critics were oddly disappointed by the record, unfairly dismissing it as a letdown after the duly appreciated brilliance of her 1995 classic TO BRING YOU MY LOVE. IS THIS DESIRE? represents a significant progression for Harvey, who here expands beyond her previous punk-blues stylings to incorporate elements of ambient, industrial and drum'n'bass into the mix. With the help of producer Flood, she's crafted a set heavy on studio-based atmospheres and soundscapes, using distorted basslines, textured keyboards and layers of thick electronic static to tell her tales. The largely third-person narratives are full of pastoral imagery, Christian symbolism and invariably doomed, haunted female characters with names like Angelene, Leah and Elise. Her lyrical experiments on this album clearly owe more debt of inspiration to modern literature by JD Salinger and Flannery O'Connor (both directly quoted) than any of her rock contemporaries. Some listeners find IS THIS DESIRE? to be an unnervingly bleak, grim experience, and indeed there are moments of horror ("My Beautiful Leah", "Joy") which reflect Harvey's unhappy personal state at the time of writing. There are references to torture, nightmares, suicide and eternal damnation. But many critics overlooked the delicate beauty of piano-driven ballads like "The Garden" or "The River". All in all, IS THIS DESIRE? stands as a brave, adventurous musical statement from a great artist. Its strange, complex beauties will no doubt be better appreciated and understood with age. Highly recommended.
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on 14 February 2004
Is This Desire? has to be Polly Harvey’s most exotic, enigmatic and mysterious album. It’s full of open-ended narratives, puzzling riddles and unanswered questions that tease and tantalise the listener. It revolves around shadowy character studies of oddly named mystery women like Angelene, Leah and Elise, related either in hushed, secretive whispers or explosive banshee screams. Fittingly, it even ends on a note of unresolved doubt and unsatisfied questioning. There is a sense of intense sadness, loneliness and confusion running through these twelve songs. You can never quite get a handle on what these songs are about, but you never get sick of trying to figure them out. Such is the dark, contradictory beauty of PJ Harvey’s fifth album.
Is This Desire? inhabits a unique, claustrophobic sound-world completely of its own. Looped beats and robotic keyboard distortion recur throughout the songs. Here she moves further away from her guitar-driven roots to explore many different styles of music on this record: goth, jungle, industrial, and trip-hop. Rather than being based around the standard guitar-drums-bass lineup, these slow, strange mood pieces were painstakingly crafted, pieced together in the studio layer by layer. As another reviewer already stated, the emphasis is more on atmosphere and sonic landscapes than catchy rock riffs.
The first song Angelene sets the tone: it’s a devastatingly beautiful and surprisingly sweet ballad that blooms into an epic, velvety chorus of “2000 miles away”. Highlights are numerous from this point on: for starters, there’s the shrieking, feedbacking garage rock of The Sky Lit Up; the overdriven bass fuzz and twisted electronica of Joy, My Beautiful Leah or No Girl So Sweet; and the comparatively breezy, catchy single A Perfect Day Elise, with its driving momentum and sleek, glistening harmonies. The Garden is easily one of the most moving, beautiful songs she’s ever written, with its aquatic piano and taut breakbeats. The River pulls you in deeper and deeper with every listen; it has a chilling, dangerously seductive power and quiet force that resonates long afterwards. The woozy title track has only a few sparse beats and gently plucked guitar twangs, but manages to wring an intoxicatingly sensual atmosphere from this minimal instrumentation. The whole album is pure, sparkling, hypnotic black magic.
So what if it takes a little more getting used to than its very different follow-up Stories From the City, Stories From the Sea? This is an equally great album that should be recognised and appreciated far more. Do yourself a big favour and buy Is This Desire? now.
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Have you ever fallen totally, and utterly, in love with an album before? Well...I have...it's called Is This Desire? From Angeline to Is This Desire? Polly Jean leads you on a complex journey during which she'll introduce you to a number of female characters, recreating diverse ambiances as she moves along the record. I have listened to it hundreds of times but haven't yet come close to getting tired of it. On the contrary...You might not agree with me, especially if you are not acquainted with PJ Harvey's music and have chosen Is This Desire? to start discovering her work. In this case try Stories From the City Stories From the Sea. But if you're willing to venture on one of the music journeys of you life, run to the record store and get yourself Is This Desire? Enjoy!
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on 14 December 2005
pj harvey takes you on a journey into the heart of desire. it is an uncertain ride upon the first few listens, then you kinda get used to the environment and succumb to it. the songs are beautifully crafted - there is a real sense of atmosphere here. this album is unlike any other i've experienced. this is a good thing. polly harvey has made a modern day masterpiece here, i feel, and the range of different forms of desire in all their glory succeed in satisfying upon repeated listens. whether played loud whilst dancing manically to the loud tracks, or listening through headphones to the more delicate songs, the album is uncomfortable and soothing at the same time. it is quite a dark album, but i feel this is the point, as the light side of desire has been played out time and again in other musical forms. it is supposedly a work of fiction, but as the saying goes, everything you can imagine that's happened, has happened and i suspect this is the case here. you are left feeling for characters you've never met, relating to stories too horrific to be true and yet, you end up feeling glad you stopped by.
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on 22 January 2004
I love this album- but if im completely honest.. if 5stars is an absolute msterpiece then this really for me is a 4.5.. why?..
The narratives / stories here have a strong sense of continuity and tie the album together completely. There are 2 tracks i dont like as much- Joy & Electric Light, even these however sit well in the context of the album, but wouldnt have the strength to stand on their own.. unlike the rest..
ITDesire is an incredibly rich dark poetic & layerd piece of work, with extremely beautiful & original arrangements- none of your predictible rock godess stuff here. Yes there is a brooding darkness about it- stories of pain & desire, & tortured mainly female characters from stories etc. It ties in with To Bring You.. her Nick C influenced album, but this one is far more original & is the stronger of the two in my opinion. There is far more going on which takes time to reveal itself. Understated songs- as an album it captures your attention initially -then reveals more & more of itself with every listen, layer under layer. Great for late night insomniacs! It is different but equally as powerful as the bluesy punk styled ROMe, albeit slower & darker.
Absolute standout tracks are The Garden, The River, The Sky.., Is This Desire, The Wind. The River is exceptional! - with some of the most heart achingly beautiful music & lyrics ive heard.. Though so many of these songs are essentially sad, they envelope you with such beauty that they transcend that feeling & leave you wanting more!.. except Joy that is. The arrangements in TRiver build layer upon layer until they crecendo. Piano & a muted 'moaning' horn, sounds off in the 'distance' giving a sense of space descriptive of the lyrics.

The production however does frustrate me as i keep wanting to hear all those subtle / unique sounds more clearly.. not louder.. just more clarity. I have wonderd if this was of course intentional. Muted horns, key boards, kickdrum, her own background vocals whispering eriely & seductively repeating, "shhhhh..." "& listen to the wind blow... ".
Theres tinkering, scraping, scratching, fuzzy electronic sub bass sounds, there is an industrial techno feel to the bass of Catherine & E Light., a muted pounding bass, and more stubtly in other tracks.

I think that what makes pjs music so unique & special is that it sticks to no 'rock' or 'indie' format. A true sign of the level of achievment here, is that it is obvious this album is has been so intensly laboured over to the tiniest detail, with its myriad of experimentation & effects, Yet it NEVER SOUNDS IN THE LEAST BIT OVERPRODUCED. Instead it is completely understated and leaves the listener to work a bit and listen out for its hidden beauty. It is not the kind of music that has you analysing what is going on technically whilst your actually listening to it.. it works too well for that, instead youll be absorbed.. afterwards... well you can see..
So there you go, different to ROM & DEMOS & STORIES, but EXTREMELY GOOD! An album you can put away but will always reward you however many years down the track when the mood takes you...... how many albums can you think of that can do that?!!
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on 30 June 2000
I had only heard of PJ in passing on a local modern rock station and had remembered hearing "A Perfect Day Elise" a few times. On impulse, I picked up the album and God am I glad that I did. I love every single song. The quieter songs still rock and the heavy beats in a few of the songs blow my mind. Awesome album! If you've never bought a PJ album, this is probably a good place to start.
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on 9 July 2015
A brilliant album from an amazing woman. I've been listening to her music since my teens in the early '90s, but never thought to look for ones I might have missed for various reasons back in't day... Yay, interweb.

Really don't think I have the necessary tools to review this; may as well ask me to review a Michelangelo with a blindfold on.
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on 13 January 2013
PJ Harvey's progression, from work to work, always changes a lot, and tries to explore new things, go different places. In my opinion, despite not being my favorite album, this is still one of the nicest, most well-executed works she has ever accomplished. It's both raw and subtle, in a balance I find very interesting.
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on 14 May 2002
I have loved the peej since rid of me and i think that a lot of people dissed this album unfairly,i find it even though dark,quite laid back and beautifully put together,it reminds me of water ,and the lyrics are more developed than some of her other releases,its more subdued and not so in your face,but still lush,my favourite songs are the wind and is this desire.
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on 11 July 2000
This was my the first PJ album I bought, and since then I've listen to it millions times over and over. It's completely perfect, the musics are beautiful, the lyrics freaks me out, and her voice adds something that I simply can't describe. Once more, pj proves her geniality and originality. A cant-live-without album.
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