Greatsong Tangent – PJ Harvey

I am a song guy. I tend to pick painstakingly through albums for the sole purpose of extracting my favorite songs. I rarely keep or listen to albums as a whole. For a very long time I have felt vaguely guilty and apologetic about this part of my listening habits. However I am turning a new leaf and embracing my love of songs, specifically by writing rambling think-pieces about my very favorites – those songs that are “good enough to live in”.


There exists a subtly delineated boundary at the intersection of Modern, Post-Modern and Futuristic. The prevalence of “post-modern” as a descriptor and as an aesthetic would suggest that modernity is somehow over, or at least quaint – a thing to be praised condescendingly for its endearing earnestness, by thick-rim bespectacled, jaded art gallery patrons aloofly clutching wine or highball glasses.

But what happens when a thing is so fully and burstingly modern it seems to encompass both post-modernity and futurism, but without using any of their touchstones or signifiers, without entering their cultural crossfire?

I am talking of course about “The Whores Hustle and the Hustlers Whore” from PJ Harvey’s Stories from the City, Stories from the Sea.

In this jangle-rock alternative 90’s gem, PJ Harvey somehow conjures that shining city, the one with the motion-blurred headlights and lens flares, the glowing skyscrapers, the neon rainbow of manmade wavelengths that makes us gasp and dream and lift our arms and throw back our heads and pray that the murmuring, shouting, milling steel and concrete night just keeps going and going deeper into eternal adventurous bliss. Indeed this song, though suffused with seed and grime, comes across as hopelessly romantic and yearning. A paean to this sustained gathering and searching of striving souls that is urban life. “Speak to me…” PJ croons, of universal law, genocide and suicide, syphilis and greed.  Yet these tales are not told to depress or pass judgment, as Polly Jean puts herself right among the scrabbling and sin. “This isn’t the first time I’ve asked for money or love” she admits. Her unseen mentor’s lessons serve as a sort of lower enlightenment, a confession, a communion, a primer on brute human nature as it manifests in our most modern environments.

And modern it is. PJ has tapped that same vein of big, effects-buttressed guitar and songwriting vision that allowed U2 to paint such vivid and restless human panoramas in mini-dramas like “New Year’s Day”. This city of Hustlers and Whores is not just pre-9/11 New York, Paris or Beijing – it could very well be William Gibson’s Sprawl, Philip K. Dick’s Electric Sheep Los Angeles, Akira’s Neo-Tokyo or any other vision of urban living where great strides in technology and imagination are still undergirded by the ancient and ignoble demons of human nature.

What are those whoops and howls that PJ emits at the end of her verses and the end of her song? Are they agony or ecstasy? Joy or terror? Enthusiasm or rage? Perhaps some electrifying combination of them all, but to be sure there is no contentment, no boredom or resignation, no respite in this song, in this city of Whoring Hustlers.

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