Context, context, context — if you really wanted it.
It helps, massively, that over at the Sound of the City Roundtable that’s just fired up this week the ever-sharp Tom Ewing has just addressed something core about this album and how it’s been received and interpreted. Much more effectively and to the point than I could have done so rather than building up to an equivalent of it, I’ll just use his words as a launching point:
The riots are still being picked and wrangled over by Britain’s political classes, and this isn’t the place to analyse them. But in pop terms there were two immediate impacts. The first was a boost for 2011’s most exhausting critical meme — where oh where are the protest songs? The second was to make it even more certain that PJ Harvey’s Let England Shake would sweep the UK’s end of year polls. If I didn’t love the record, I’d be boiling with resentment now as critic after critic fell into line. But it’s my favourite album this year too, as much for its command of mood as for its lyrics — the horrible placidness and resignation of “Hanging In The Wire,” or the title track’s haunted music hall strut. In a year where “atmosphere” was a euphemism for cocooning oneself in production….Harvey’s greatest achievement may have been to summon up the dislocating and uncanny with not much more than an autoharp, a skiffle beat and a handful of samples.
Polly Harvey’s songs, of course, weren’t anti-war, simply about war—or that was the theory, since her collage of voices built up into an indictment anyway. But whatever resonance they had with the year’s events was mostly coincidental. The gravity of protest is, I suspect, felt less by musicians than by critics, who are keen to legitimise the artform by fitting it into wider narrative and letting it stand comparison with history.
Tom’s spot on as ever as far as I can tell, so I don’t want to gild the lily too much when it comes to what’s supposed to be a quick series of reflections here instead of engaging in full. Instead I’d like to talk about the other context that was initially acknowledged on release but is now slightly obscured by events, that of PJ Harvey’s own background rather than her country’s. It’s been a long ride now, after all.
Harvey’s like John Darnielle, and like others I’ll name later in this list, when it comes to how long they’ve been around recording and releasing music, hitting twenty years still in full flow, far from being someone new and notable, now comfortably settled into a niche. Except, of course, they’re not, and that’s one big reason why I’m interested. Unlike the Mountain Goats I was pretty much in with Harvey from the get-go thanks to early Melody Maker coverage and the like, and from the first notes of “O My Lover” on Dry I was sold further and everything’s followed from there. But the last time I listened to those recordings was a long time ago, similarly with, say, Is This Desire? or Stories from the City, Stories from the Sea or even White Chalk. This isn’t a complaint, this is massive, massive praise, and I equate it with the Mountain Goats again — I appreciate but ultimately don’t want the past redone again from those artists I most respect, I want the NOW.
Sensing Harvey’s progressions and interpretations and changes over the years by means of memory is crucial here — I never really thought of, say, Bowie in comparison to her before this year, or Joni Mitchell if you like or maybe you’d prefer Kate Bush (hell, maybe Prince?). Or of course Captain Beefheart, which she’d appreciate in particular. I’ve definitely thought of Mark E. Smith before, thanks to her brilliant performance of, appropriately enough, very recent Fall song at the last time I saw her in concert in LA, a tribute to John Peel after his death earlier in the day. These are all slightly burdened by the sense of canon that has settled over their various efforts but there’s that sense of a throughline of variety within their spheres, however individual their own paths and however you measure success.
In that regard, it’s almost too easy — at least it seemed to me — to realize how much Harvey had been hiding in plain sight all these years now, how each album or collaboration, counting her two albums with John Parish, resists the previous one or reacts to it, finds a new elaboration or path, avoids trapping her in amber. The sheer breadth of that last LA show I mentioned caught my breath; add in the more recent material and it gets even more astonishing. Let England Shake is creative confidence in full flight at its best, and its best is pretty much song for song. It’s a considering of what is expected with a sharp laugh and shrug at conventions.
So much for context — the album itself? A key thing should be noted: it’s an album that can and does put a smile on one’s face, one of sonic satisfaction, of tactile moments throughout, the refracted slow 60s frug crunch of “In the Dark Places,” the fox hunt sample on “The Glorious Land.” Whether it was the autoharp or the church recording or all that or more, I don’t think I’ve ever heard her more…shoegazey, dare I say, when it comes to sounds that are powerful, serene and yet utterly melancholic at the same time. But there’s joy here, which is what makes the black sentiments and bleak humor and feeling of the album so incredibly affecting in turn. “On Battleship Hill” almost starts off like something that could be from a 1930s that wasn’t, it makes me think of a tourist Hawaii of the time, something lacking steel guitars but still shimmering and hazy. Then her voice steps into a near silence, high and clean, with the music then rising back along with a male vocal at points, a soft piano descent here and there too. The joy gets lost as the song goes but never quite goes nonetheless, there’s a sense of pleasure reached for even as the words “Cruel nature has won again!” are repeated.
That’s one example to pick out when Let England Shake overflows with them, a sense of engagement that’s not simply moving out of comfort zones but creating new ones, of beds that you can’t quite be comfortable in but are still beds, in their own way. Harvey has never not steered away from the idea that music can grip and engage the whole of the self, body, soul, spirit, use the metaphor or concept you prefer. All the talk and all the praise that Let England Shake now receives in particular wouldn’t be there, as Tom rightly noted, if there wasn’t a reason to feel obsessed by its textures, its melodies, its depths. At this time of the year, “Hanging in the Wire” feels like a carol somehow, singing along when all the lights are gone forever. Even so, the singing continues.