Steve Wilson. On music.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

PJ Harvey - Let England Shake (Vagrant)

 I may be reviewing PJ Harvey's excellent new record Let England Shake, but here's a little warm up for you from 1994 - Harvey's duet with Bjork on the Stones' "Satisfaction." Each woman kicking the other into the next gear and a new level of energy. This is fierce.

Okay. That was great, huh? Now to the business at hand.

Sometimes I take a gander at what other reviewers have to say about a record when I’ve determined to review it. I suppose, mostly for general perspective, occasionally to give myself something to bounce off or argue against. But meta-criticism has its limits, and mostly I stick to the music and to my response to it. And that’s how it’s going to be with the new PJ Harvey album Let England Shake. Just PJ and me.

Think about the last twenty years in rock music. Okay. Now, name an artist who has done better and more varied work over that time than PJ. And if you’re going to say Radiohead, uh – sorry, fail. Otherwise, maybe you have some ideas, but right now I can't think of one.

From the punk charged, visceral 1992 debut Dry through the art-blues (think Beefheart w/a touch of Zep) of To Give You My Love to the sublime urban romantic near-pop of Stories of the City, Stories of the Sea (not one of the artist’s favorites, but a rare commercial breakthrough that was not in the least compromised artistically) and Harvey’s work has been at once tremendously varied and unified aesthetically. The focus of her art is always on the songs and the emotional pull of her powerful performances. Harvey isn’t married to a given idiom, or even instrumental vehicle – for her most recent record White Chalk she composed all of the songs on piano rather than guitar (her standard).

The performances on Let England Shake borrow from everything from blues to punk, but the soul of the album is in its embrace of folk idioms, both British and American. Some of the brass arrangements recall the early 20th century sounds that Richard and Linda Thompson plumbed on records like I Want to See the Bright Lights Tonight, especially on tracks like “The Last Living Rose,” “In the Dark Places,” and “All and Everyone;” the latter combines Morris dancing meets Zappa sounds with an autoharp-centered melody, hinting at the hard scrabble, Appalachian balladry of performers like Sarah Ogan Gunning. 

Harvey’s long time accompanists Mick Harvey (no relation/Bad Seed) and John Parrish are ever sensitive to PJ’s vision. Parrish’s dry, punk-spiky guitar on “Bitter Branches” reminds of the Adverts. The song’s sad-sweet harmonies and lyric (“their arms are bitter branches, spreading into the world”) suggest the deep roots of imperial violence. In the idyll of her native Dorset, Harvey was moved by reading the literature of empire, in particular Maurice Shadbolt’s “Voices of Gallipoli,” and author L.A. Carylon’s writings on the horrifying specter of Gallipoli (the British-French offensive from 1916 during the First World War that resulted in nearly 400,000 casualties). Harvey also absorbed Roberta Reeder’s work “Russian Folk Lyrics,” similarly obsessed with the brutalities of war and power.. Indeed the basic theme of Let England Shake is that empire has a price, a deforming price that has touched everything in English life. Not really your standard pop inspirations, but Harvey has never been one for pop fodder.

The title track chugs along like Dylan’s “Masters of War” after Philip Glass (complete with a loopy, but effective vibraphone part from They Might Be Giants’ “Constantinople”) - Harvey proclaims, “England’s Dancing Days are done” like some harridan Robert Plant. “The Last Living Rose” refers to “the grey, damp filthiness of ages” – the legacy of horror that underpins England’s imperial glories. “The Glorious Land” paints a clear, didactic picture (“What is the glorious fruit of our land; It’s fruit is orphaned children”) to a sing-song rhythm, replete with girl group call and response and pretty Johnny Marr (ish) guitar framing.

Perhaps the albums centerpiece, “The Words That Maketh Murder” draws together all of the record’s arrangement strands (Harvey’s authoharp, rock guitar, horns) with an almost Motown bounce that winds down into a bizarre, but effecting quote from Eddie Cochran’s “Summertime Blues.” The sound of Harvey repeating “What If I Take My Problem to the United Nations” is goofy, ahistorical and risky, but as the chant builds in intensity no one’s laughing.

Harvey’s intimacy with blues language gives a directness to songs like “Written on the Forehead” with its sampled (from reggae torch bearer Winston “Niney the Observer” Holmes) refrain of “let it burn, let it burn, let it burn.” “Forehead” is about the cost war visits upon civilian life - for both conqueror and conquered. The following, concluding song, “The Colour of the Earth,” is sung from a comrade in arm’s perspective, Let England Sleep winding down with a reflective and elegiac mood. 

Harvey’s art is nonpareil. Sometimes it might prompt comparison to Patti Smith, given their shared authority and fearlessness. Smith has addressed the ravages of war, too – in Gung Ho’s title track and in songs like “Up There Down There” from Dream of Life. Both artists have a profound sense of war’s tragedy and waste. But Smith’s poetic risks are combined with musical settings that rarely stray from her stated premises of "three chord rock and the power of the word". Not a thing wrong with that, but by comparison Harvey and her compatriots are musical adventurers.

PJ Harvey has a remarkable way of investing herself in her subject matter. She shifts from first to second person, from confidential modes to omniscient narration with assurance. As a singer she glides effortlessly between the alto and soprano parts of her range, always with tremendous diction, conviction and singular phrasing. Let England Shake comes from a profound place in both her heart and her intellect. It is yet another stunning piece of work from one of the great musical voices of our times.

Reverberating: 9.0