Even though she's not quite as overt about it as Madonna or David Bowie, PJ Harvey remains one of rock's expert chameleons. Her ever-changing sound keeps her music open to interpretation, and her seventh album, Uh Huh Her, is no different in that it departs from what came before it. Uh Huh Her -- a title that can be pronounced and interpreted as an affirmation, a gasp, a sigh, or a laugh -- is, as Harvey promised, darker and rawer than the manicured Stories from the City, Stories from the Sea. That album was a bid for the mainstream that Harvey said she made just to see if she could; this album sounds like she made it because she had to. However, despite the playful tantrum "Who the Fuck?" and the noisy mix of pent-up erotic longing and frustration that is "The Letter," Uh Huh Her isn't the Rid of Me redux that one might envision as a reaction to the previous album's gloss. Instead, Harvey uses some of each of the sounds and ideas that she has explored throughout her career. The gallery of self-portraits, juxtaposed with snippets of Harvey's notebooks, gracing Uh Huh Her's liner notes underscores the feeling of culmination and moving forward. The results aren't exactly predictable, though, and that's part of what makes songs like "The Life and Death of Mr. Badmouth" interesting. Earlier in Harvey's career, a track like this probably would have exploded in feral fury, but here it simmers with a crawling tension, switching atmospheric keyboards for searing guitars. Indeed, keyboards and odd instrumental flourishes abound on Uh Huh Her, making it the most sonically interesting PJ Harvey album since Is This Desire? Lyrically, heartache, sex, and feminine roles are still Harvey's bread and butter, but she manages to find something new in these themes each time she returns to them. "Pocket Knife" is an especially striking example: a beautifully creepy murder ballad, the song conjures images of hidden feminine power -- a pocketknife concealed by a wedding dress -- as well as lyrics like "I'm not trying to cause a fuss/I just wanna make my own fuck-ups." "You Come Through," meanwhile, is nearly as direct and vulnerable as anything that appeared on Stories from the City, Stories from the Sea. Uh Huh Her isn't perfect; the track listing feels top-loaded, some of the later songs, such as "Cat on the Wall" and "It's You" come close to sounding like generic PJ Harvey (if such a thing is possible), and the minute-long track of crying seagulls is either a distraction or a palate cleanser, depending on your outlook. Still, Uh Huh Her does so many things right, like the gorgeous, Latin-tinged "Shame" and the stripped-down beauty of "The Desperate Kingdom of Love" (one of a handful of short, glimpse-like songs that give the album an organic ebb and flow), that its occasional stumbles are worth overlooking. Perhaps the most nuanced album in PJ Harvey's body of work, Uh Huh Her balances her bold and vulnerable moments, but remains vital.
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