Everett True

Song of the day – 290: PJ Harvey (a mini-review)

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Sure, I’m as intrigued as anyone.

She polarises. Much of me wants to hate her, for the preciousness that surrounds her, the way she receives accolades usually reserved for male artists – why is it never the other way around? – for her treatment of music as art. Someone is putting her in for the post of war poet, she wants a Turner Prize for her music. Well, why not. One art form is no less an art form than another. And sure, music can be art and social commentary. I just don’t like art galleries or newspapers, usually. I’ve saved some of my worst vitriol for her (the ridiculously over-feted  album Stories From The City Stories From The Sea where Polly tried to be Nick Cave and sadly received more acclaim than ever). I’ve also saved some of my highest praise for her (the debut, of course, Dry: that last piano-led album … er, most everything actually). She sometimes comes across as humourless, but clearly isn’t. Po-faced, but SO isn’t. She’s passionate, immerses herself within her work but then will claim otherwise. Part of me has never forgiven her for denying she was a feminist in that Melody Maker interview with me and Sally Margaret Joy at the height of the first wave of Riot Grrrl, 1992 – a conversation that inspired the “She said, ‘I am not a feminist’” line in Hole’s ‘Asking For It’. Part of me totally understands why she did that. I can recall her hiding in corners at Camden loft parties before her fame. She’s an astonishing performer, usually. Except when she isn’t.

My first impressions of Let England Shake – an album even more feted than usual, and that’s saying a lot – is that it’s way more approachable, way friendlier than rote. Ironic, of course – considering the ‘serious’ subject matter (um, you won’t need me to go into that here: it’s been talked about everywhere else). I can’t help noticing that the way the title track (video below) lilts, and its slightly breathless, squeaky vocal, reminds me of Lykke Li. The deftly handed percussion too. Ironic. One is pop flimflam in comparison (except when she isn’t)  and the other is Rock Seriousness For The Critics (except when she isn’t). Mind you, almost everything is Pop Flimflam in comparison with Polly – especially Saint Nick – and I’m not sure whether that’s good or bad. Polly, of course, has been known to be fond of her crotch, just like Lykke is: this is a trait I feel should be encouraged in both sexes, but particularly female… however, this really isn’t the time or place to be going on about female crotches. Not when there are wars to be decried. I’m just trying to point out that there’s a lightness behind the seriousness, almost heady in places,  fantastically welcome in this age of 4.30 minutes Kings Of Leon songs and boys falling over themselves to explain that Radiohead can still write ‘melodies’, just give us a second, we’ll work out where. Not a note wasted, not a note pointlessly repeated. Not least among its virtues, Let England Shake is a triumph in restraint

Or to put it more concisely: The new Radiohead album is 37 minutes long, but only contains 37 seconds of music. Let England Shake is 39.6 minutes and contains exactly 39.6 minutes of music. I can’t help feeling that sides me with the Jools Holland’s of this world. Fuck it. Another reason to feel conflicted over Polly. Her music is rooted in a certain tradition, even as she messes with that tradition and builds upon that tradition and moves that tradition onwards and upwards. Radiohead do nothing except be Radiohead.

I can see me playing this back to back with Wounded Rhymes, for sure.

More on this later. How amazing is ‘England’?

8 Responses to Song of the day – 290: PJ Harvey (a mini-review)

  1. Tom February 25, 2011 at 11:45 am


  2. Erika M February 25, 2011 at 1:14 pm

    I was first introduced to P.J. Harvey less than 10 years ago & found her exasperating in videos with her tiny skirts and playing guitar in high heels which always strikes me as ridiculous (unless it’s flamenco guitar) but I couldn’t deny the music and I knew I was jealous. As a contemporary of mine she seems so musically self-assured in a way I could never be. She seems to have that strong core or supportive family that allowed her to blossom in a desolate field. So when she was coming to play Portland a few years back we were talking about going to see her and my boyfriend said, “Oh, Erika doesn’t like P.J. Harvey.” I said, “Yes I do! It’s just that I HATE her.” He didn’t really get it (or me). We went to see her, and I was up front the whole time with my arms wrapped around another girl while the boys were lost in the back.

    As for this album, I deeply respect the way it makes some very heavy and important stuff very accessible. It is “The Wasteland” without the over-explaining. Establishment types can comfort themselves by intellectualizing “Oh, it has a lot of World War I imagery in it” and Americans can comfort themselves by thinking it’s about England rather than recognizing the timeliness, the timelessness, the truth, and the reality of what she is saying. It reminds me of when I was a teenager and I discovered Bob Dylan’s early albums on my parents record shelf, pouring over the lyrics, going “Wow, he is really saying that! He is really saying that!”

    She said of this album, I think on US National Public Radio, that she used the higher voices because the voice of a 40 year old woman, full strength, with the lyrics as they are, would have been TOO MUCH. http://www.npr.org/2011/02/15/133749985/pj-harvey-on-war-and-the-new-england To me, her voice comes off sounding like a grandmother spirit, like a forest spirit, sweet, sad, etherial and real — fairies singing at the edge of a battlefield. “I am the grass, I cover all.” http://www.bartleby.com/104/78.html It is that subtle, gentle power penetrating wind http://deoxy.org/iching/57

    I woke up this morning with the song “All And Everyone” in my head, so beautiful and disturbing and REAL. The very first note of the first song of the album is chopped at the beginning — to me the album is like the trajectory of a gunshot, sudden and eternal, full of flowers and blood and not quite of this world. It is everything that made me want to be a musician and believe that music could change the world.

  3. Everett True February 25, 2011 at 2:11 pm

    Frankly Erika, you make me want to take down my blog entry and put your words up there instead. Thank you.

  4. Dave February 25, 2011 at 5:02 pm

    It’s good, but no Slippery When Wet.

  5. Old Ghosts February 25, 2011 at 7:38 pm

    I love it,

    it’s almost the Radiohead album that the OK Computer fans have been waiting for…

    Is it really only a matter of time until some scamp mashes it up with They might be giants take on istanbul (not constantinople)?

  6. Everett True February 25, 2011 at 7:49 pm

    Or, to put it another way:

    The King Of Limbs needs a singer. Let England Shake has a singer.

  7. Adam BloodRedSounds February 25, 2011 at 8:06 pm

    The contrast with Radiohead is fair, especially in terms of the lyrics. Whereas Yorke tends to mangle his supposedly ‘serious’ themes with abstractions – apparently compelled to refer to them but afraid to confront them in plain English – PJH stares them in the face.

    There’s nothing obscure about her metaphors, and that’s what gives them their power. I like some of Radiohead’s music, but I haven’t got a clue what they’re trying to communicate with it. Harvey makes Thom Yorke sound like a frightened child.

    ‘Let England Shake’ is the most confident album Harvey’s made, and – while not as musically vital as ‘Dry’ or ‘Rid of Me’ – it’s her best since ‘To Bring You My Love’.

  8. sleevie nicks June 19, 2011 at 5:50 pm

    damn it, i had given up on pj after that to bring you or me his love album. after reading this and watching the video it looks like i have some back catalog to introduce myself to.

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