Friday, February 18, 2011

Album of the year - yes, already!

I've been listening to what will undoubtedly be the album of the year; undoubtedly because I cannot imagine it being bettered. It is Let England Shake by PJ Harvey.

I came late to Polly Jean's oeuvre but have loved Stories from the city, Stories from the Sea and the more recent White Chalk. She writes beautiful, intelligent, edgy songs. But nothing prepared us for Let England Shake.

The album is full of fabulous tunes. Some of them arrive on the gossamer wings of a mayfly, things of fragile beauty; others come with an almost industrial groove, played with a wonderfully light touch. And all of them are made more enticing, ethereal, stranger by the instrumentation and use of samples - bugles, reggae hits, etc. Polly Jean has even triumphantly made the autoharp a rock n' roll instrument.

Then there's her voice. She's noted for being a bit strident, though I've always loved its slightly west country timbre. But here, her voice seems to come from a different dimension altogether, strong and yet delicate, angelic and earthy.

The music and the voice on their own would make this my album of the year. But the songs are amazing. This is record about something that matters - and how often can you say that these days? Gone are the introspective songs about love and relationships. Instead Polly Jean tackles war - what bigger subject is there? - but even more importantly, why England, the land she adores with a passion, has been shaped and is still being shaped by war.

The album is a meditation on what has made England the country it is, what has shaped our psyche, our national character. She achieves it by musing on the first world war, especially the Gallipoli fiasco, using first hand accounts filtered through her subtle and fertile imagination.

The result is an unsettling spiritual masterpiece, an album that makes you think and feel; a suite of songs that forces the listener to ask why things are this way and what have I contributed? For instance, In the Dark Places suggests a link between our war record and young men who use guns to settle their differences on our streets. On England, she describes the land as 'a withered vine' - a potent and powerful biblical image of a land and its people - and speaks of her longing to find the springs that might renew it; and yet she sings 'undaunted, never failing love for you, England, is all, to which I cling.'

When she sings 'cruel nature has won again' on On Battleship Hill, which begins with an almost disembodied vocal singing that the scent of thyme stings you into remembering that nature has won again (a hopeful, even beautiful image - especially so due to to her voice), as the song's final line, you realise that she is talking about our nature, human nature. Even after all this time, the innocent scent of thyme brings back the horror and futility of a battle that cost so many lives.

It sounds like a heavy brew, yet it is also awash with wonderful light, even humorous moments, like the sampling of the line from Eddie Cochran's song Summertime Blues at the end of The Words that Maketh Murder: Polly and her band sing 'what if I take my problems to the united nations..?' It makes you laugh and weep in equal measure.

In short, buy it, listen to it, talk about it, reflect on it: this is what rock n' roll was always meant to be - music that might just change the world.

No comments: