this is track 1 on polly jean’s album is this desire?, and it is absolute vintage harvey. she’s an artist who couches complex themes in a (seemingly) simple song structure & melody. the song tells the story of a woman driven to prostitution by the loss of her true love, who has a blind hope for future joy. for although the temptress says, "dear god, life ain't kind," she adds that "i've heard there's joy untold”, which beckons to her like an open road. we can’t be sure if the song is exclusively about this girl and her suffering, or whether it also denotes a disturbed and sinful society (“love for money is my sin”). the entire album swings on this concept of almost unattainable goals; we hear the stories of other women such as joy, angelene’s polar opposite (“ joy was her name/alive, unwed/30 years old, never danced a step.") catherine and elise. it is driven home that these women all seek but do not find. angelene would be almost mellow in tone were it not for the feeling of unbeatable despair, but p.j makes it palatable by letting us see a flicker of light, which is ephemeral but present nonetheless.
p.j. ponders whether the wrenching pain is worth it or whether love is nothing but a yellow brick road to self-destruction. this is asked in the title of the album as well as its title song, is this desire?; “is this desire?/ enough enough/ to lift us higher/ to lift us up?" the question has been answered already of course in the first song, in angelene: "i’ve heard there's a joy untold/ lays open like a road in front of me."
the song seems to have been inspired by "pretty mouth and green my eyes", a story by j.d. salinger. the story is from his collection nine stories and seems pretty pointless, apart from being about cheating and self deception - an old man and a lady are in bed when the old man's friend, arthur, calls. his wife has yet to come home from a party, and arthur suspects her infidelity. so the old man gives arthur this really long pep talk and assures him his wife will return, which she does. the woman polly talks of in the line "any man calls, i'll let him in" may be arthur's wife. arthur says whenever he thinks of leaving her, he remembers a poem he wrote to her: "rose my color is and white/pretty mouth and green my eyes". (which are the lines she lifted from the story).
another thing to note is that also in nine stories, the story "for esme, with love and squalor" has the line "dear god, life is hell" which can be also compared to the similar line from this song.