Friday, April 1, 2011

PJ Harvey - Let England Shake (2011) REVIEW

« Let England Shake » is the best PJ Harvey's album since « Stories from the City, Stories from the Sea » in 2000. « Let England Shake » is also her first real album since 2000. Indeed, « Uh Huh Her » (2004) is a collection of previously unreleased new demo tracks in the same vain as « 4-Track Demos » was in 1993, except that the later was presented as a collection of demo tracks and not as an album. Then there was the bleak and lugubrous « White Chalk » in 2007, voice and piano near exclusively, more a digression, if interesting and here and there compelling, than an accomplishment. « White Chalk » is an exercise in style that should be considered as such, and like the previous « Uh Huh Her », it should have been issued as a collection of rarities and demos. Concerning « White Chalk » I'm always very glad when an artist quite as established as PJ Harvey is ready to challenge oneself, and the very fact she's no piano virtuoso doesn't play in my opinion, but there's always some inevitable comparisons to make when other artists are doing it way better : Regina Spektor's « Mary Ann Meets the Gravediggers and Other Short Stories » (2006) is one example, a closer one, esthetically and geographically, could be An Pierlé's « Mud Stories » (1999). And if both mentioned ladies are far better pianists than Polly Jean, I could add whatever album by Daniel Johnston during the 80s, compared to him Polly Jean is Glenn Gould himself. I don't forget the second collaboration with John Parish « A Woman a Man Walked By » in 2009 to which Polly Jean wrote and sang the lyrics, John Parish composed the music. So that's no PJ Harvey's record per se. That in mind, this new PJ Harvey album is undoubtfully some major musical event, it's a bit like a come back, and that could explain the fuzz this album is creating around critics (aggregate scores on Metacritic is 88%, just like Pitchfork Media, the NME Gave a 10/10) and surely fans, and Polly Jean's got loads of fans. But why so? Why such esteem? Why such near devotion? How comes PJ Harvey became in all the meanings of the term a rock icon?

First of all, PJ Harvey appeared at the right place (well, not so – see further) and at the right time. Nothing bad with this, it needs some luck of course, but in PJ Harvey case, that's not the point, because she's got a talent as big as that. For the right time, her first album « Dry » was issued in 1992. Nirvana's first album « Nevermind » was issued less than a year before. PJ Harvey appeared right in the middle of the so called 'Grunge' explosion with an album which has near all the components of that 'grunge' music : very loud, aggressive and distorted upfront guitars, thunderous bass, powerful drums, and mostly those successive loud-calm passages. PJ Harvey was no follower, she was listening to the same music, had the same references, or almost, as let's name him: Kurt Cobain. But while 'grunge' was near exclusively an American thing, PJ Harvey was a band from Great-Britain (for the right place – Great Britain was into shoegaze and the end of Madchester : Stone Roses, remember? And preparing the so called 'britpop'), and maybe one of the only British bands of the era to propose this sort of rock music. The band PJ Harvey was also fronted by a girl, and she was nevertheless impossible to amalgamate with the Riot Grrrl bands (politically oriented) nor to other all girls bands and/or fronted by a girl like Courtney Love's Hole, L7, Babes In Toyland, etc. Where near all those grunge female singers (even many Riot Grrrl bands which were very feminist in nature) were trying to emulate their male competitors with growls and roars, Polly Jean Harvey did not, she was whispering, moaning, sometimes hysterically shrieking. So from the very beginning, she was different and maybe more importantly she was genuine. And last but not least, that debut album « Dry » was an immediate masterpiece. I consider it one of the best albums of the 90s hands down and surely one of the best debut albums ever. A year later the band issued « Rid of Me » recorded by Steve Albini (Big Black, Rapeman, Shellac), who will produce Nirvana's « In Utero » almost three months later. That second album was a very violent, gruesome and studio-live affair, less compelling concerning the songs themselves but completely affirming PJ Harvey into the major league of the era. In my opinion, this album now suffers sonically from some obsolescence. PJ Harvey, as a band, disbanded a short time after and from then on Polly Jean Harvey, still under PJ Harvey moniker, became Polly Jean Harvey solo. And then there is the terrifying prospect of the third album. Many a band or artist failed there, Polly Jean didn't. « To Bring You My Love » was issued in 2005 and it was another immediate masterpiece. Just like « Dry », that album is still one of the best album of the 90s, and one of the best album, period. While all other female bands of the era, it would be the above mentioned Hole, Babes In Toyland, L7 or whoever, were still proposing yelling, groaning, shouting, all guitars out, halfbaked angry grungy punk-rock stuff, Polly Jean turned her back to the whole thing and made an album deeply rooted into the most urban post-apocalyptic blues, not that far from Nick Cave and The Bad Seeds (no coincidence Bad Seeds' Mick Harvey – no family- was part of the adventure) but in her own very dark, feminine and lascivious way. From that record on, PJ Harvey became a legend and an icon, with the huge risk to become overrated in the near future. Three albums (not to mentioned 4-Track Demos) and two masterpieces. Few could say so.

Unfortunately what goes up must go down. A year after, she recorded her first collaboration with John Parish « Dance Hall at Louse Point »; three years after the fourth PJ Harvey album « Is This Desire? » was issued . A very good album, fantastic songs, great performances, but something was missing. To quote someone else : « Harvey sounds more like a spectator than a protagonist in her own music. » (Piero Scaruffi). PJ Harvey relied more and more to studio trickeries, sound effects and she basically began to lose herself as a genuine artist. This album contains some classics like « Angelene » or « A Perfect Day Elise » and the whole thing is still standing head and shoulders above near everything else from that era till now, but it was some step back. Two years later, PJ Harvey issued « Stories from the City, Stories from the Sea », the album of an established artist containing good things, some generic but welcomed rocking PJ tracks, some other fine if subdued and melancholic songs, but also some worrying nod towards stadium rock, the first song refrain « Big Exit » is more anthem than song. Then a track like « We Float » veers towards Tori Amos or Fiona Apple, but some shy and pale Tori, and surely a far less compelling Fiona Apple. « Good Fortune » is an unreleased song by The Pretenders.

Ten years later, here we are with « Let England Shake ». Polly Jean decided to stop being a spectator in her own music to concentrate on others problems like, in this case, England and World War I. All that is very interesting, but I'm a little afraid that her next album will be a complete concept album in the best vain of these prog rock bands of the seventies. Fortunately, the music on this album is still far from it, there's even some return to more simplicity and authenticity, and if the subject is serious, the music, the songs sound at the same time relaxed and worked out, it also feels like these guys got fun recording them. Besides, PJ Harvey once again is experimenting with some new direction, new instrumentation too (saxophones for the first time on her records and used in a creative way, no cheesy solos, but adding some colours and even a smile here and there). This is also PJ Harvey's folkiest album since the very first « Dry », in a smoother way.

After several listens, I'm still not very thrilled by the whole album, some songs yes, like "Let England Shake", "The Words That Maketh Murder" and "All and Everyone" but I was also bothered by some odd choices like these very dream pop (back in fashion) reverbs on the guitars almost everywhere, that effect on her voice everywhere too and that uncomfortable feeling of getting through her last and old records collection. I find nothing bad in having influences, all artists have them, but this isn't PJ Harvey's first album, and on her first album it was very difficult to pinpoint other artists. As much as I like the song « Let England Shake », it's hard not to think of The Creatures-goes-folk : Concerning The Creatures' leader Siouxsie Sioux, I could almost hear Siouxsie and The banshees on some other songs, not the voice, but the sound. « The Last Living Rose » contains a guitar line which Robert Smith (who played in The Banshees too) or The Xx wouldn't deny, or maybe even New Order's Peter Hook's highpitched bassline : (the beginning of the song). « The Glorious Land » sounds like a rough Bat For Lashes leftover : « On Battleship Hill »'s got a atmosphere à la Neko Case : Polly Jean has never been so Björkian as on « England » with some strong intonation à la Joanna Newsom. « Written on The Forehead » is maybe the oddest, it sounds like a Cocteau Twins demo with a blocked nose Liz Frazer. And finally, I had to think of an uninspired St Vincent on some other places, part of songs, bit of arrangements. The namedropping is getting even fastidious but never have I got so many names popping up in my mind while listening to a PJ Harvey's album. But whoever came to my mind, that whoever just did all this way better. All in all no bad album for sure, but I will conclude by paraphrasing « this is the first day of my life », this is the debut album of PJ Harvey's new musical journey. Let's hope the next album will transcend the influences to get a real new PJ Harvey's album of the new PJ Harvey. I like the character too much to file her under « overestimated artist »... but it's close.

6 out of 10

  • Dry (1992) - 8.5
  • Rid of Me (1993) - 5
  • To Bring You My Love (1995) - 8
  • Is This Desire? (1998) - 7
  • Stories from the City, Stories from the Sea (2000) - 5
  • Uh Huh Her (2004) - 4
  • White Chalk (2007) - 6

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