Thursday, February 17, 2011

Review: PJ Harvey - Let England Shake

On Let England Shake, gives us a guided tour of her homeland; its landscape, its people, its history, conjuring images of rolling fog and sea-captain's graveyards and dusty books and corpse-littered battlefields. As a blushing anglophile, without case or a passport to visit the United Kingdom, being given a guided tour by Polly Jean is a pretty decent substitute.

She doesn't seem much in the mood to speak of herself, however, and those longing for a return to her primal catharsis roots won't find it here. What we find, instead, is an eagle-eye's vision of the British psychogeography, and while it sounds like it could be some bloated, Incredible String Band concept record, Let England Shake has enough rock 'n soul to sustain; at times funky, funny, quirky, rocking, moving, and strange.

PJ has never been one to repeat herself, to rest and grow complacent. In typical fashion, Let England Shake is a progression, but not a radical departure. She returns to lessons learned on previous work, assimilating their strengths, and delivering a confident, cohesive work. You can hear the heartfelt, piano-driven quirkiness of White Chalk on tunes like Hanging in the Wire or the first standout single, The Words That Maketh Murder, with its strummed autoharps and Shirelles beat. You can hear raw, dirty blues weirdness on In The Dark Places and Bitter Branches, that are the closest to vintage PJ that we all know and love, which is to say they fucking rock. We also find tunes like album opener, the eponymous Let England Shake with its afro-miramba bounce and The Glorious Land with throbbing kraut bass, detuned reveille brass and spookshow organ, that seem new and vital, and without precedent.

PJ Harvey is essentially a singer/songwriter, and is faced with the challenge: how does a guitar-centered, lyrically driven musician to remain pertinent in 2011, to create new and interesting songs and sounds? One answer is stunning arrangements. Working with long-time collaborators Mick Harvey and John Parrish (whom she described as her 'musical soulmate'), and mixed by Flood, she leaves enough space in her music to be filled with tasty brass accentuation, autoharps, mirambas, backing vocals, reggae samples, and the best bass and guitar tone this side of the river Thames. The music that results is textured and engaging, revealing new levels and interpretation on each subsequent visitation.

The other answer is amazing lyrics. With vivid descriptions of war torn battlefields and foggy fields, craggy mountains and the scent of thyme on the air, her language is poetic and detailed, practically manifesting imaginary landscapes before yr very eyes. I find her attempt to describe more universal, human affairs, and not to focus simply on small-person i, to be commendalbe, and it yields up some spectacular and unique results.

Much has been made of the reoccurring militaristic imagery found on this record, and have pigeonholed it as a 'protest record'. She has claimed that she is focusing on 'Humans and how they treat each other,' war included. The overall impression i was left with was of a landscape, to get out and wander around in. Yr not gonna see it all, the first time. I didn't totally get it at first, and did not totally love this record the first time i heard it, missing the earthy rage of Dry, but the nuances drew in me, meriting further investigation. I spent some time with the prior albums, leading up to this one, to understand the trajectory, to understand her commitment to growth and honesty. As a musician and creative type, working in this day and age when it seems like everything's been said and done, i am inspired and compelled by her ability to continually create new and challenging work, to find strengths in the old forms.

I'm looking forward to 20 more years with Polly Jean.

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1 comment:

  1. thanks for this!!!!!!!!

    chek this music