In the age of e-mail, an increasingly small group of people cling to the art of handwritten correspondence, and PJ Harvey appears to be one of them. Unlike many of them, though, she’s written a song about it, and in the way only she can. True to a woman who has spent the last decade blending the carnal and the combative, ”The Letter” — one of many brittlely robust songs on Uh Huh Her — takes the idea of writing to a lover and turns it into a sensual act. ”Take the cap off your pen,” she sings to fitful, stabbing chords, ”wet the envelope, lick and lick it.” She then emits a yowl, turning ”I need you” into a swoony, erotic yelp.
When we last heard from her, Harvey seemed amorously charged as always, but also happy. On ”Stories From the City, Stories From the Sea,” released four years back, she was intoxicated with new love and a new home (New York City), which added breadth to her sound. In the concerts she gave to support the album, she found a middle ground between her excoriating younger self and confident, imposing adulthood. But Harvey has never made it easy on anyone, including herself, and on ”Uh Huh Her” she returns to the raw, scorched-earth abrasiveness of her first records. Playing everything but percussion (which is handled by Rob Ellis), she bashes out primitive blues stomps and metal riffs, strums quietly, and sings like a wounded, wayward siren who’s been at sea longer than she anticipated.
All of which is appropriate for songs that meditate on the good, bad, and ugly of a preoccupied heart. If one were to guess, something has gone seriously awry in Harvey’s personal life since the last album. Now she wants nothing less than to wash the lies out of her lover’s mouth (”The Life and Death of Mr. Badmouth”) and his scent out of her hair (the ravaged ”Who the F—”), and she feels embarrassed by the way in which her fixation has unraveled her (”Shame”). In ”Cat on the Wall” — the sound of banshees armed with fuzz-box guitars — she pumps new blood into such mundane imagery as hearing a memory-inducing song on the radio or replaying an old answering-machine message from an ex (”It really sounds like you’re having fun,” she adds, straightforwardly). Each song — even the relatively settled and pretty ones, like ”You Come Through” — is akin to a minimovie, and a grainy, hopelessly evocative one at that.
Plenty of singer-songwriters have dabbled in Harvey’s less-can-be-more rock-noir starkness. Some, like Damien Rice and Cat Power, have made potent music from it; just as many others sound dull and solipsistic. ”Uh Huh Her” reasserts that Harvey, now the grande dame of this genre, remains unrivaled. Rather than be bested by her obsessions and anger, she uses them for fuel. By the last song, ”The Darker Days of Me and Him,” she wants to ”tape the broken parts together and limp this love around.” But there’s nothing wobbly about Harvey’s ever-fraught journey in search of herself.