The sixth of ten favorite 2011 albums — P J Harvey’s ‘Let England Shake’

PJ Harvey, Let England Shake

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.

Purchase Let England Shake via iTunes or Amazon.


Not Just the Ticket — #68, PJ Harvey, July 13, 1993

PJ Harvey, Palladium

Then current album: Rid of Me

Opening acts: Radiohead, Moonshake

Back of ticket ad: Fox Photo still not giving up. A siren song easily resisted.

I honestly don’t get what the staple holes to the side of the ticket are from. Maybe I bought this thing directly at the outlet here at UCI and that’s what they did with all tickets. A strange little beauty mark.

Meanwhile, this show! What a triple bill to be at!

It’s perhaps a natural counterpoint to the previous entry, given the nature of the music and the tragic conclusion to the band’s story, that this one provides nothing but warm fuzzies, or something close. Which given some of the music that the bands in question have done over time might seem ridiculous, and yet. This is definitely one of those ground zero shows in ways, something where I’m like, “Wow, I was lucky enough to catch that? How did THAT happen?”

Of course, it wasn’t like it was a small unannounced club show. A lot of what made this show especially memorable wasn’t apparent at all when I saw it (and loved it), and nearly all the attention was focused on one person. PJ Harvey seemed to come out of nowhere when the first singles surfaced on Too Pure in the UK; as with nearly everything at that point it was a Melody Maker article that first made me go “Wait, hold on, who is this?” She had already had a review or two through them by the time of a first big story but what happened was that in early 1992 or so (maybe late 1991?) said magazine ran an issue grouping together four up and coming acts in a typical enough ‘we can’t decide who will be the cover star but maybe it’s everyone’ approach. I think Thousand Yard Stare were the stars as such, featuring one guy stark naked. Great.

The PJ Harvey story was far more interesting and there were soon a slew of stories followed by the release of Dry, ending up out here in the States shortly thereafter. One listen — I picked it up shortly before I left Los Angeles for OC — and I was a pretty committed fan, though to my annoyance I wasn’t able due to that move to attend what was her first LA show, a set opening for David J. Given he’s a musical hero of mine, I’m even more annoyed I missed that set now, what a perfect combination of two inspired and singular figures who love their roots and blues and take them very different directions.

There’s no great secret why PJ Harvey got the attention she did — sometimes quality will just do the business for you. She put together so much so well and so immediately that it still makes you shake your head in admiration all this time down the road; if Dry is only a starting point it’s still one with killer songs and performances on it like “Sheela-Na-Gig” and “Dress” and “Water” and a hell of a lot more besides. So wickedly smart, so knowing, so impassioned, and goddamn did it ever kick out with unbridled energy as much as it was, in its own particular way, art rock.

So come a year later and Steve Albini recording sessions and Beavis and Butthead going on about how she had a crooked mouth and Rid of Me hits and good goddamn was THAT ever a monster. The title track seriously freaked me the hell out when I first heard it, the whole idea of quiet/loud/quiet was already a perceived cliche but there’s something so singular about the title track of Rid of Me, its understated hook, PJ’s cool singing, the twisted falsetto backing and extra treble and then BAM. And that was just the start of a mesmerizing, amazing album. If I talked about it in full I would be going on for quite a while.

Seemed like everyone was a fan around me. I sure as hell hoped everyone was. Meantime having played at the Whiskey the previous year opening for David J she was now scheduled to headline the Palladium in less than a year later, and all this without having actually busted out into massive selling levels yet. She was just already that huge in her own distinct way. So getting a ride to the show was easy — in this case it was with Yen D. and at least a few other friends.

The Palladium was the Palladium, no surprises there, but for some reason I do remember we ended up at a nearby restaurant to eat before the show. It’s not there at all now, at least so I’m guessing, but I have this impression it was a couple of blocks away (perhaps on Vine between Sunset and Hollywood) and was a Thai place. I was just walking down that stretch of road the other day and I know it’s definitely not there now, replaced by one or another of a set of buildings, but still, we had dinner and then over to the show.

I don’t remember too much of anything before the appearance of Moonshake, just that they were on stage and doing their thing in reasonably short order. They were the actual opening act for this tour, Moonshake having jumped from Creation for their first single to Too Pure for everything else since that point, though PJ and crew had already moved on to Island fully by then. But on a larger scope it all made sense, whether it was Dave Callahan’s background in the Wolfhounds or Margaret Fiedler’s own distinct voice and performing sense or the combination of them in early Moonshake or something else that ended up being the connection between them and Ms. Harvey, or just the fact that they all ended up at the same clubs in London for a drink. (Which strikes me as the most logical answer.) In any event, I honestly don’t remember much of the set aside from it being loud, scabrous, and generally causing confusion among the audience. I would have been right there with them if I hadn’t already known about the band, honestly.

And then, oh yeah, Radiohead. The reason I haven’t talked much about them and getting to know about them around 1993 in this entry so far is because I already did that a bit in my (much shorter) blog project back in 2007, Countdown to In Rainbows. So let me refer you to the entry I wrote that started it all, and I’ll copy/paste (and slightly edit) the relevant part about the performance here:

In retrospect the memories are dim. They’re on stage, they’re playing and they seem, well, okay enough to be there. They’re not actually part of the tour, this is a one-off date, part of a series of LA performances including a separate club headlining show, a radio session, and a TV appearance for Arsenio Hall. It’s not a bad initial touchdown in LA, and it helps that they are the in thing.

I remember Thom’s hair. EVERYONE remembers Thom’s hair. It was in all the photos then, he had grown it into this strange…mop. It wasn’t grunge. It wasn’t glam. It wasn’t ANYTHING. It was, just, well, strange. The stage lights glinted off of it, it shook a lot. Some rock people do big hair really well. Thom Yorke didn’t, frankly. But he was happy with it, at least initially, and hey, like I’m one to talk. Still, I think I was doing a touch better than him. However, he was the one on stage and I wasn’t, so enough of that.

I had a promo tape of Pablo Honey at this point; I would have preferred a CD but I only got that bit later. I really loved “Anyone Can Play Guitar,” scattered other songs. The setlist indicates they played that but I only remember “Creep.” Because the place, unsurprisingly, went nuts. And I think the band were already pretty tired of it. But they played it, and they knew why they were there in the first place, why they had a leg up over all the other bands whose first LA appearances were small club showcases and nothing else. It was because of that song.

But they weren’t the reason why everyone was there that evening, of course.

I remember squeezing my way up towards the front — nowhere near it, but much closer than I had been — with Yen and others in a group. Yen kept calling out “Polly wanna cracker!” every so often, and why not? I don’t remember anything untypical about her and the band finally taking the stage, just that there were a hell of a lot of cheers and pent up energy.

The show itself was unsurprisingly great, though there’s not much in the way of specific details that stick with me. I remember PJ herself looking a bit bemused, amused even, at the prospect of playing before such a crowd, but not in an arrogant or distant sense, more like a ‘wow, it’s already come to this — okay then!’ way. Given the Palladium’s notoriously dicey acoustics I am not surprised that no one moment is the moment for me but discovering it was the drummer who could do a very good rip on those falsetto vocals from “Rid of Me” was a bit of a revelation.

The whole point was — it was just a spectacular show with no one highlight per se in my brain, just a great smear of energy and theatrics and getting down in it. Little surprise that she kept getting bigger. Or that she talked about sheep balls with Jay Leno later that year.