Friday, December 30, 2011

STN Albums Of The Year no.1: PJ Harvey - Let England Shake

Let England Shake is an album about war, but not in the usual browbeating fashion. It's an album about England, but four of its songs are based at Gallipoli. Since its Valentine's Day release there have been plenty of efforts to tie it in with various news events of the year but it won't adequately fit any of them. What it is is one of those rare moments of absolute working order, an inventive, alive songwriter with ideas both playful and pitch-black allying them to a band in perfect interlocking order and a sympathetic producer who makes the result sound like something new has been mined from a vocal-guitar/autoharp-bass-keys-drums setup (and if you're casting for lightly doomed backing musicians you could do a lot worse than Mick Harvey and John Parish), airy enough to almost qualify as minimal, hazy melodies remoulded into songs that sound like Eastern Bloc field worker folk chants and songs that sound like dreampop if the reverb and synths were phased out, topped off with Harvey's recently discovered detached tremulous higher register. Harvey interviewed former soldiers while writing the album but doesn't just reinterpret their words, more synthesises them as secondhand narrator into the locale of the battlefield, the mess hopes, the grown over fields where war once flourished. One song that samples Niney The Observer's fire and brimstone prediction of social chaos Blood And Fire, another borrows a quote from the Four Lads' version of Istanbul (Not Constantinople). One interpolates a line from Summertime Blues as a caustic comment on international relations, another includes a bugle call recorded as if fading in through time and to hell that it's not in time with the rhythm. As much as this is a new range for her Harvey's previous album White Chalk was a memento of the cliffs, fog laden fields and darkness on the edge of town that is her idea of old England; this time it's an international briefing of what secrets, memories and repeated lost hopes of peace lie behind its histories and cause celebres, one that leaves mysteries and curiosities facing up to the very awkward truths.


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