Friday, 25 March 2011

P J Harvey - Let England Shake

What does one make of PJ Harvey? Genius or madwoman? Or both? Certainly, she lacks nothing if not integrity, ploughing her wilfully lonely furrow for over twenty years without any sort of acknowledgement of prevalent trends.

I don’t mind admitting that despite my preference for weird and wonderful artists, I have struggled with Polly Jean. I’d like to be able to love her unreservedly and whilst some of her output has been dazzling there are significant areas that I have always found unpalatable. But of late, I have come to an uneasy truce and it is her output since ‘Stories From the City, Stories from the Sea’ in 2000 that has suddenly clicked with me.

My problem has been that her first two albums, ‘Dry’ (1992) and ‘Rid of Me’ (1993) were fierce and almost savage in their presentation making for some very uneasy listening. The next two, ‘To Bring You My Love’ (1995) and ‘Is This Desire’ (1998) were more interesting, the latter having some very fine moments indeed, but I still found listening to an entire album hard work. On the plus side, live performance was another matter altogether. PJ thrives in a live environment and comes to life in her natural habitat where she can perform but on album, somehow it just doesn’t work.

But with the recent trilogy of ‘Stories’, ‘White Chalk’ (2007) and her most recent offering, ‘Let England Shake’ (2011), the penny has finally dropped. These three albums are poles apart from one another; ‘Stories’ is edgy pop/rock with her usual snarling guitars and vitriol laced lyrics, ‘White Chalk’ comprises hushed ethereal piano-led laments and ‘Let England Shake’ is a variant of early Pink Floyd progressive folk. With its unusual arrangements, use of out of sync effects and lyrics dwelling on war and death, it is very possibly, a masterpiece. Ask me again next year and let’s see.

The key to these latter releases is melody and consistency. PJ has developed a real skill with melody that bucks the trend of virtually all other artists I know. Generally, it seems to be the case that an artist’s ability to write new tunes wanes over time and is concealed by ever-more sophisticated production, but not PJ. Her capacity to write unusual melodies appears to be in the ascendancy and she presents them in a stripped down format which is why I have accepted her later work more readily. Also, her latter albums are more cohesive to the point where to pull out a song and stand it up on its own makes no sense. As with Pink Floyd, you have to hear the album as a whole. As always she is different, unique and out-of-step.

But lest you think with all this tunefulness, she has copped out of the ‘madwoman of rock’ tag, consider this. Who else, after a period of inactivity, would choose to perform ‘Let England Shake’ from her current album live on Andrew Marr’s political talk show in front of Marr himself and then-Premier Gordon Brown? A more unlikely audience could not be imagined as she put on her best ‘bag-lady with an autoharp’ act, screeching out her disgust of England’s hidden truth whilst they sat, be-suited and uncomfortably goggle-eyed in shot.

Genius or madwoman?


YourZenMine said...

I would say Polly Jean is one of the few rare talents in the world who aren't a follower, who set their own terms and have continued to push themselves when others have merely let themselves go.


music obsessive said...

YourZ - Yep, that just about sums it up. These are qualities I admire, which is why I have persevered with her music rather than just give it up. And the rewards are now coming. This last album is a stunner.

Zee said...

Well, whether she's a genius or a madwoman, she writes incredible music :D And Like YourZenMine said, she sets her own terms and continues to push herself.

music obsessive said...

Zee - It's a well known fact that you have to be a bit mad to be different. These are the sort of people I'm always drawn to. Madonna may be the biggest selling female of all time but she will never come close to creating something like 'Let England Shake' or Kate Bush's 'The Dreaming' because she's a business woman not an artist.