Saturday, April 30, 2011

PJ Harvey — Let England Shake

So, a bit of my personal Harvey history before we get into this one: I was introduced to her music through my now ex-wife. I came to thoroughly love her and her music. She always came across to me as a 'pure' musician — one who was in it for the pure creativity and expression of writing a song. As poppy as she was at times, PJH was never about anything more than the pureness of writing a resonating song. She reminds me of Mark Burgess and the Chameleons very much in this respect.

PJ's last decade was an interesting one. I loved Uh Huh Her (eventually) and White Chalk and I was very underwhelmed with the second PJH + John Parish album. I sometimes feel like she can get too artsy for own good, but when she really sticks to her base of writing personal lyrics and dissonantly catchy melodies, she can create this singular world of lo-fi chamber pop that teeters on the fine line between self-indulgence and total brilliance.

File this one under the latter.

And I have to admit that, yes, I like that it's an infinitely more poppy album than anything she's done since Stories From the City, roughly a decade ago. There's tons of clean, jangly guitars and every song here has a clear, defined hook. Horn sections, xylophones and even harmony vocals (thanks John Parish!) all augment the usual PJH playbook (minus the calling card 'rock out' moment which is noticeably absent, and yet not missed) and it generally and genuinely feels a little bit revelatory on songs like the mini-epic 'All & Everyone.'

As far as the words on the album, I have to feel like the musical backing is so quiet and restrained because the lyrics are so poignant and heartfelt. Shying away from romantic matters of human relations, Let England Shake is instead a melancholy love letter lamenting the rise and fall (ok, mostly the fall) of Great Britain. Sure, she's getting political here. But it doesn't feel forced. Make no mistake, she loves her country and the word "England" appears in the title or the chorus of no less than a fourth of the album's songs. This feels like a natural and authentic expression of outcry from a person who loves their country and has seen it venture down the wrong path for too long (example lyric: 'I am a withered vine reaching from the country that I love. England, you leave a taste. A bitter one.'). And it's fitting that PJ hasn't, for a long time, sounded as passionate and just flat out real as she does on this album. And it took getting political for her to recapture it.

So, yeah. It's bittersweet. She loves her country enough to criticize it to pieces but never to leave it for anyone else to claim. But, PJ being the articulate person she is, a lot of the songs here (I'm mainly thinking of 'All & Everyone' and possibly the album highlight 'In the Dark Places') could be applied to any of the contemporary world's developed countries that are meddling in political wars abroad while the situation domestically deteriorates.

If nothing else, it's a real shocker how much of a folk rock vibe this album has. Specifically speaking, I was very reminded of the Pentangle and Sandy Denny-era Fairport Convention throughout numerous listens to this album (hell, throw Rocket Cottage-era Steeleye Span in there too). It's got an undeniable political bent to it, but there's also a weird, almost torchy aspect to some of the songs here. And you can't deny how much John Parish just sounds like John Renbourn (exhibit a: 'The Colour of the Earth').

Overall, christ on crutch is it good.

Sweet molasses on a pancake. Filling, satisfying and lasting. But, maybe a buttermilk pancake as the case may be here.

Because I have to think that it would still sound tremendously sad even if it wasn't a parting gift from my now ex-wife.

Ouch for me.

Yay for PJ making maybe her best (and most diverse) album in over a decade.


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