Saturday, February 12, 2011

Peej saves...

In my last post, I was lamenting the slow start for music to 2011. Of course, as soon as I hit publish I got an advance copy of PJ Harvey's new record and I can say 2011 has officially begun for me - it is a great album.

I have an interesting relationship with PJ because even though I am a big fan I don't automatically love all her albums - there's at least two I can't stand. I never really warmed to Rid of Me (sue me) despite its classic status and even though there's a few great songs on Uh Huh Her, it seemed regressive and unnecessarily reactive towards the success of Stories from the City. To be brutally honest, I don't think I listened to White Chalk all the way through - just not my cup of chai. That being said, Dry, To bring you my love, Dance Hall at Louse Point, Stories from the City and especially Is this desire? are total class. While I might not like individual albums, I appreciate she is an artist that makes very different music from one album to the next - a trait that can be fascinating, surprising and infuriating. You're not dealing with endless variations of three chord boogie rock here.

Saying PJ Harvey is otherworldly is like saying Limp Bizkit are shit - so obvious it's redundant. However, I feel that there is something especially weird and transcendent going on in Let England Shake. At first listen, the album seems unremarkable and straightforward but the second time through reveals a radical change in both style and content of the PJ's music. It's there but it's subtle - stylistic changes that add rather than detract or overshadow the music itself. As the title suggests, it is a very parochial album but in the sense that it explores the dark alleys of modern England along with the shiny surfaces. War is the most common theme along with dislocation and England's place in the world. The images are striking and fierce which is counterpointed by the sleepy and strangely benign compositions. Weirdly, to my ears, some of the music sounds like it could could come from World War 2. I don't think anyone is going to confuse PJ for Vera Lynn or The Words That Maketh Murder for Roll out the barrel, but it is more in the tone and content that the songs echo an earlier time while maintaining a certain ageless quality.

It's also strange to hear PJ sing music that is so stridently political when her oeuvre is often defined by intimate and personal stories. Some may argue that the personal is political but this album is very much focused on the social and human cost of war. The other difference on this album is the use of samples. Given the singular vision of PJ's previous work, it is disconcerting at first to hear her distinctive voice mix with other voices and sounds. The sampled trumpet call to arms on The Glorious Land sounds out of place at first listen but subsequently it makes more and more sense. The jaunty vocals that form the chorus of The Words That Maketh Murder are a joyous counterpoint to lyrics like "I've seen soldiers fall like lumps of meat."

While the album is certainly dark, it is infinitely more accessible and interesting sonically than the austere White Chalk. I've only had the album for 24 hours but I can quickly hear it becoming one of my favourite PJ records. That alone is enough to say that 2011 is a good year for music. Yay.


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