Mercury Winners : PJ Harvey ‘Stories From The City, Stories From The Sea’ (2001)

It is a little-known and highly uninteresting factoid that the only person to win the Mercury Prize twice is English Alternative pioneer PJ Harvey, in 2011 with Let England Shake, and in 2001 with Stories From The City, Stories From The Sea. On both occasions she beat strong competition to win surpassing Elbow (Asleep in the Back (2001), and Build a Rocket Boys! (2011)), beating the well known (Radiohead – but who hasn’t edged out Radiohead to win an award at some point? See the travesty of the 2008 Grammys – Katy B, Goldfrapp, etc.) and the less well known like Turin Brakes, Ed Harcourt, Tom McRae.

That being said, you can’t take anything away from PJ Harvey’s outstanding triumphant release, sounding like a fully-fledged 70s Patti Smith crossed with an 80s new age Kate Bush there is an uncompromising feeling of catharsis throughout the whole album. From ravaging opener ‘Big Exit’ through the understated but brilliant ‘This Mess We’re In’ (see, Thom Yorke can win an award) to the strains of ‘This Wicked Tongue’ (if you’ve got the bonus-track version) you get the feeling that Harvey has shut herself in the studio and didn’t come out until she had thirteen works of art for her album.

The surprisingly deep lyrics are the standout point of the release; most post-millenium music tends to take well-written music and just throw vaguely rhyming words at them until they sound good, but not Harvey, her intelligence and her meticulousness shine through the instrumentation. Themes as diverse as sexual abandonment, New York, and self-amelioration might not be the most elegant of dovetails, but the mark of a great album (rather than just a good album) is that it doesn’t juxtapose the themes; it unites them, ‘I feel like a bird of paradise / my bad fortune / slippin’ away’ or ‘I think it’s Wednesday / I’m in New York now … / the skyscrapers / the freeway / this mess we’re in’. Harvey writes as though her life depends on it, and it shows.

That said, a near flawless Diamond is only near flawless, it still has some faults. Harvey, although bringing us a plethora of lyrics, seems to struggle when it comes to bringing us the same musical variety, there is only so many times an album can switch from guitar-attacking to piano-led soft ballads. ‘Big Exit’ and ‘Kamikaze’ lack impact despite their clear rock foundations because of this.

This is a near perfect album, beating Radiohead on merit and not on a mad decision from the judging professionals. It might occasionally sound as if the album is on repeat, but otherwise it is a tour de force and a most deserving winner.

Mercury Winners : PJ Harvey ‘Stories From The City, Songs From The Sea’ (2001)