You wait for a bus and then a few come along at once. In agreeing to have PJ Harvey’s new album as May’s album of the month – I have long found her a singular and unflinching artist that’s made music that doesn’t seem to nod to any other artists – and then Radiohead release A Moon Shaped Pool forty-eight hours later. Music’s gain is confusion for this blog. For, as much as I love PJ, and have enjoyed The Hope Six Demolition Project‘s own character, it can’t but help have taken a back seat since I heard Burn The Witch.
But this is about the album of the month, and it’s still more than worth all our attention and review. Harvey burst onto the scene with The PJ Harvey Trio’s Dry in 1992, an angry, unafraid and powerful artist that put her own life and experience at the centre of her music. Despite her never giving much care to the mainstream’s accolades or attention, she flirted with it in the mid-00s, even garnering BRIT, Grammy and Mercury nominations (the former two, she never won), but is the only artist to have won the latter twice, with Stories From the City, Stories From The Sea, and then her previous LP, Let England Shake.
So, what does an am artist that’s been making music for 30 years have still to say? While Let England Shake drew parallels between previous world wars and the messy modern conflicts we have been dragged into, The Hope Six Demolition Project deals with a much larger focus, in reality it still addressed themes and topics that are as virulent and important as any she’s taken on over the years: poverty, deprivation, loss, race, class, and humanity. It crosses the pond to look at America (as she’s done before) and is a nakedly political record, perhaps addressing the issues in a way that a US artist couldn’t. And being Polly Harvey, it was no ordinary recording, with sessions taking place live in Somerset House as the public watched.
What is the album like? You get many of Harvey’s strongest suits – raw rock, piercing vocals and lyrics, confrontational themes and the ever presence of John Parish’s gruffness – and an unflinching gaze onto America’s most troubling issues. This has resulted in somewhat of a backlash over the pond, with residents of the Washington DC area referenced in the album and commentators both criticising her subject and her opinion. But provocation is what Harvey does, and across the eleven tracks you get an album and a message that’s clear. In The Community Of Hope’s critical words and The Ministry Of Defence’s jangling guitars and chorused vocals, fans will feel at home. It’s not just a single pace or style, with Chain Of Keys’ rumbling snares and heavy sax, while River Anacostia’s haunting wail overpowers everything else. There’s definite echoes of Stories from the City… on show, so it’ll be interesting to see if it can follow up that and its predecessor’s success and resonance. Single The Wheel (above) is the most accessible and catching record, but like many of PJ’s albums, it needs addressing as a sonic whole. That’s where the power lies.
As she gets older, perhaps the one criticism of Harvey’s canon is that as she addresses weighty and important issues in her music is that she gradually retreats herself from the centre of it. Perhaps she’s earned that right. Are these views her own? Is it simply a theme of the album? We will likely never know, but it doesn’t dim the power of her music, and most likely never will. We bandy ‘national treasure’ around too much, but while she’d never agree with it herself, I’m sure PJ Harvey deserves it more than many.
Seeing as this isn’t the album of the month for Jan, this is worth posting. I’ve been a fan of Midlake since I was put onto them about the time The Trials Of Van Occupanther came out in 2006. They’re a band that sounds very much like they were born in the 50s (1850s), with a real Americana feel, as if they’d lived in a log cabin (see Roscoe, for that whole vibe from that album) and worked on the railroad. It could be affected, but actually it’s great, and they don’t really sound like much else I own, though the vibe is quite similar to the isolation of Bon Iver’s debut album.
This is the single from their new album, sans original frontman, but they’re still just a potent, and this is such a rich sounding record, but they have an amazing way of evoking world-weariness and regret and emotion in their music. I like this A LOT.