Monthly Archives: November 2016
My Spin on Masterworks: 22 of 25
Hmm… okay. If pressed, I’d say my favourite Radiohead album to date is In Rainbows. It’s a touching, beautifully crafted sequence, and unlike its predecessors, sounds free from all burdens of expectation. There’s barely a trace of grandiloquence in its ten songs, and each one is immediately accessible without sounding comparatively basic by the group’s standards. That said, if I want to marvel at an album’s all-enveloping sonic world, it’s Kid A, no contest: its eerie, otherworldly qualities are still completely transporting. Kicking through my twenties, I’m still finding fresh magic and relevance in The Bends, and this year’s A Moon Shaped Pool is comforting and disquieting in equal measure. Further down the scale, both Amnesiac and Hail to the Thief offer up some sublime moments, but as full-length listens, they’re underwhelming entries. Pablo Honey reflects a young band struggling to settle on an identity, but a few green shoots poke through, hinting at great things to come. I think that about covers everyth – oh, wait. The King of Limbs. I keep forgetting about that one.
Radiohead’s turbulent, ever-evolving catalogue is fascinating to examine. I could happily fill page after page writing about any one of the quintet’s nine existing albums, at least four of which I’d readily class as masterworks, for their own distinctive qualities. So why have I opted for OK Computer as an entry in this series? Or to be more specific, why have I opted to toast the Radiohead album that has been venerated so greatly – and for so long – that surely there’s nothing left to say at this point? Well, it’s precisely because of the deafening clamour of praise surrounding OK Computer that I’ve selected it. The appeal of the album has become slightly drowned out over the years; it’s now saddled with an intimidating amount of hyperbole to the point that it’s surprisingly easy to miss its genuine strengths.
Just as OK Computer is the Radiohead album that’s easiest to praise, it’s also the easiest to criticise. It’s been placed on such a pedestal ever since its release, it has become a clear target for disdain as sceptical listeners attempt to pick holes in what is regularly (and exhaustingly) flaunted as one of the Greatest Albums of All-Time™. In a way, OK Computer has steadily become the album equivalent of a GCSE set text: guitar music’s answer to Lord of the Flies or The Catcher in the Rye. It has been studied endlessly, its observations and ideas regarding human nature have remained staunchly pertinent, it’s a work still widely discussed which continues to prove influential for other artists in the form, and the consensus regarding its greatness is so inescapable that it can paradoxically seem to be a bland choice of favourite. Announce in public that OK Computer is among your most-loved albums, and chances are (especially in this age of hipsterism) you’ll be derided (silently, if not out loud) for such an obvious pick.
As such, it can be tough to connect with OK Computer free from the rhetoric and various attitudes swirling around it: the piercing rebuttals, the bewildering superfan theories, the heavy expectations it’s been lumbered with. It’s a shame, because while an album can undoubtedly be enriched by close attention, there are cases in which the works themselves become tiresome to regard; a state in which OK Computer has undoubtedly been put at risk. So I’m not going to try to defend this record’s perceived shortcomings or highlight striking new surprises hidden in its depths. Instead, I want to celebrate how amazing the album sounds on its own terms, because really, it’s a fantastic listen in and of itself.
There’s a lot folded into OK Computer, and a cursory look at its gestation reveals that its conception was something of a perfect storm. Still uncomfortable with their stratospheric rise to stardom, the band continued to recoil against the commercial machinations of the music industry, shirking anthemic songwriting in favour of stretching the rock song into alternative shapes. Thom Yorke exorcised his bewilderment at modern society in his increasingly sharp lyrics, and sketched out his tentative predictions for the coming millennium – many of which are still salient to this date. His words are occasionally impressionistic, but they capture very human concerns in the face of an increasingly cold and detached age. Anxiety over mankind’s uneasy relationship with ever-advancing technology are spotlighted repeatedly, amid bubbling paranoia, mental and physical deterioration (‘Climbing Up the Walls’ and ‘Let Down’), and the western world’s cutthroat emphasis on efficiency and speed. It closes with Yorke screaming at someone (maybe everyone) to “slow down”. Down in blur of sound and noise, the dust, the screaming, and the yuppies networking, his plea rings out, but whether it’s ultimately heard and processed is not clear.
As with every other work that becomes swamped with hyperbole, it’s possible to give the creators too much credit when assessing the quality of OK Computer. Time after time, Radiohead’s members have exhibited a keen intelligence and passion, but their career has admittedly seen its fair share of coincidences and (un)happy accidents too, not to mention the occasional misstep. But even so, without letting those theories get too detached from credibility, OK Computer articulates the paranoia and alienation that has characterised both the pre- and post-millennial years following its release. The band’s deriders label them as miserablists, but in truth, the group subtly locate the valour of the listener amid the confusion and chaos of modern life. There may be anger directed elsewhere (“we hope that you choke”), but Yorke extends words of compassion and solidarity to the everyman lost amid the tumult: “one day, you’ll know where you are”. ‘Airbag’ and ‘Lucky’ go so far as to cast their protagonists as superheroes, “back to save the universe” in the wake of cataclysm. OK Computer offers a sounding board for individuals who feel disillusioned with society and their place within it.
Above and beneath the words, the music remains incredibly powerful. If The Bends was a firm step forward for the group in terms of musicianship, OK Computer found their chemistry in full flow. Ed O’Brien, Jonny and Colin Greenwood outdo one another repeatedly with headspinning guitar gymnastics and subtle, left-field bass hooks. Philip Selway’s drums are spliced with machine-tooled beats and distorted loops to blur the line between human and technology. The results sound mighty, and there are some strange, subtle mysteries still lurking here and there. What the hell is it making that sighing noise during the coda of ‘Karma Police’? There’s the scree of tiny wails and squeaks that unsettle the second half of ‘Exit Music (For A Film)’, raising a few extra goosebumps in an already-haunting piece. And of course, there are the monstrous shapes and shadows shifting in the background of ‘Climbing Up the Walls’, behind Yorke’s jagged, barely discernible words.
It’s a potent blend of uncomfortable words and questing, forceful music, and instead of the awards and endless discourse, it’s this that keeps us returning to OK Computer. As we know, there’s so much that can be said about this album, and no shortage of commentary or criticism to sift through (ahem). But when all is said and done, the most refreshing thing to do is to cut straight through the wank and just listen to the music, because the strikingly affecting core of OK Computer can be reached with direct engagement. (Re)discover the delicate, crystalline beauty of ‘No Surprises’ and ‘Let Down’, both of which sound as stirring as ever. Check out just how stunning the dense guitar squalls of ‘Airbag’ are, lurching and squealing like rending chrome or shards of glass. There’s the slow-burn wonder of ‘Lucky’, the interwoven humour and grace of ‘Karma Police’, the towering headtrip that is ‘Paranoid Android’. Yes, this is an album of technical mastery and prophetic sentiment, but it’s also abundant in fantastic, creative and passionate songs.
Ultimately, that seems to be the best way to approach OK Computer: listen to it, not as the Greatest Album of the 1990s or whatever, but as the work of a group of people who took the time to articulate their worries for the future and set them to this single disc. Get away from the hype and try to focus on what’s there in the music itself. The punch, beauty, and ache is still there, without the need for any extra noise or commentary. It’s still relevant, still chilling, still wonderful. Stop reading and start listening.
My Spin on Masterworks: 21 of 25
Let England Shake
It would be a severe disservice to Polly Jean Harvey and her illustrious career to disregard her greater body of work in the pursuit of whittling her albums down to just a single definitive masterpiece. Moreover, to argue that her legacy would be of lesser worth had Let England Shake never been released would be outright insulting. Harvey’s iconic and enduring status was confirmed decades prior to the making of her eighth album, and she has cast a long shadow over the musical culture of the late-20th and early-21st centuries. She has been recognised – and deservedly so – with plenty of awards and plaudits in her time, but these gongs (such as the twice-won Mercury Music Prize) are ultimately unnecessary endorsements considering the breadth of her work and her continuous influence on modern artists. In a way, they’re merely signposts to that which is now obvious: PJ Harvey is in a league of her own.
Essays can be (and have been) written that would justify the status of any one of her albums as a modern classic. Looking closer still, to pore over her numerous collaborations, her restless trendsetting in sound and style, and her sharp-eyed take on matters of contemporary and historical significance, it’s clear that valorising one of her achievements over another can seem a little moot. So, in her versatile discography of distinctive treasures – Dry, Rid of Me, To Bring You My Love, White Chalk – why single out Let England Shake? In part, it’s because of all the records in the singer’s catalogue, Let England Shake stands apart most noticeably in the unflagging intensity of its vision, as well as packing the most convincing case for immortality beyond Harvey’s die-hard fans. It’s on this record that Harvey handles huge themes with calm and dexterity, writing music which is seismic in scope but not overwhelming in execution. Unlike some of her earlier offerings, Let England Shake does not strive to be mind-blowing or breathtaking, at least not in a scene-stealing sense. Instead, it is a deliberate and persuasively powerful work, which continues to demand attention after dozens of repeat listens.
Following touring duties for 2007’s White Chalk, Harvey immersed herself in examining the national character of her home country, digging especially deep into England’s military history, the evolution (and lack thereof) of its physical landscapes, and the way the country’s legacy has shifted (and soured) through time. An interview with Bridport News reveals her creative process more thoroughly, but the proof can be heard on even a cursory listen to the album itself: Let England Shake is rich in content, Harvey lacing her research into a cohesive work that isn’t the gruelling chore it would be in shakier hands. It’s one of her greatest abilities: to make records of this sensitivity and intellect look (and sound) simple.
Understandably in the wake of her studies, Harvey’s lyrics proved the starting point for Let England Shake, and the most prominent focus of the record is the Great War, the spectre of which hangs heavily over these twelve songs. Harvey’s perspective shifts back and forth between that of soldiers (“I’ve seen and done things I want to forget”) and a detached commentator amid scenes of unfathomable devastation. However, Harvey demonstrates a clear understanding that the horrors of war require little embellishment beyond the facts, and even when she references moments of truly horrifying violence, her delivery is graceful rather than heavy-handed. The album’s starkest song, ‘All and Everyone’, casts an eye over the Gallipoli campaign of 1915, and the event’s emotional gravity is kept in taut balance: “Death was everywhere / in the air and in the sounds / coming off the mounds / of Bolton’s ridge / oh, Death’s anchorage”. The haunting power of the song is summoned through these terse phrases and Harvey’s own singing voice, which is largely kept to her cut-glass higher register, giving an eerie beauty to her dispatches.
As for its sound, at first Let England Shake can feel a little unusual on the ears, if only because one would expect an album of its nature to sound more discomfiting. In truth, there’s very little drama to the music: no conventional crescendos or centrepieces here, just the occasional spike in tempo (‘Bitter Branches’), or stomping group chants (‘The Words That Maketh Murder’) to punctuate the watery, hazy aesthetic pursued by Harvey’s team. This tight ensemble included Harvey’s longstanding collaborator John Parish, as well as Mick Harvey and producer Flood, and their shared experience gives the album a tangible confidence that never tips into indulgence. Among the central mix of Harvey’s much-loved autoharp, commanding percussion and occasional groans of saxophone, guitars are mixed in murky shades, oftentimes sounding as though they are played underwater, or veiled behind thick curtains of fog. The uniform sound that emerges insistently creeps under the skin: it’s off-kilter but not otherworldly, sounding drawn from the past while never wholly familiar.
Those keen to pin down Harvey’s words to particular moments can find concrete references with additional searching, but generally, these songs are blurry around the finer details; never giving the listener a single linear path to follow. “The West’s asleep,” Harvey announces over the increasingly sinister prance of the title track; “let England shake.” It’s a terrific opening gambit that has life beyond one ascribed meaning, and it’s one of many phrases lodged throughout Let England Shake that can be picked out at will, and moulded to fit a particular notion. Harvey’s bold and penetrating look at her country’s history is rendered in broad strokes, many of which ring with additional potency in the wake of events following the album’s release. Her snarl of “goddamn Europeans / take me back to beautiful England” harks back to the trenches of the Western Front, but it also now queasily summons thoughts of Brexit and the troubling nationalism of modern Britain. With each new listen, Let England Shake reveals new layers of complexity, throwing up strikingly vivid imagery one moment before smudging away any specifics the next.
And when her language is kept clear and direct, the results are striking. Landscapes are represented in their contrasting beauty and brutality: in surveying the cliffs and coasts of Dorset, Harvey takes note of “jagged mountains, jutting out / cracked like teeth in a rotten mouth”, while during ‘The Last Living Rose’ her narrator pines for the “stinking alleys” and “grey, damp filthiness” of home. The stunning ‘Hanging in the Wire’ conjures its scenery not just through words but in its music; its delicate piano flutters hinting at faint glimmers of sunlight through iron-grey clouds. Mostly, Harvey evokes distinctly English pastoral landscapes, to the effect of giving these songs a timelessness that comes uncomfortably close to skirting romance. Harvey herself addresses this tense mingling of love and hate on the song ‘England’, claiming her country “leaves a taste / a bitter one”, though she ultimately professes “undaunted, never-failing love” for her homeland, in spite of the damage it has seen and wrought.
With Anglophilia still rife among musicians on an international scale, and considering the country’s social divisions that are more apparent than ever in the wake of Brexit, what is it that makes an “English record”? More than any of her peers, Harvey has produced perhaps the best outline of England’s character over the past century. Across the many layers of Let England Shake, we are given a study of the country’s battle scars and proud heritage, its awful losses and appallingly cruel machinations at home and overseas, and the gloom, beauty, and brutality of the land itself. This canvas may be broad, but this means it is open to be studied from many angles: a state-of-the-nation address, a tribute to those directly involved in England’s military operations, a love letter to the landscapes forged across millennia and frequently defined by the blood spilled on – and for – its soil.
There are rewards to be found whatever the lens one chooses to apply. And most hauntingly, it’s an album which poses to its listener perturbing questions of humanity. When looking closely into the horrors and cruelty reported on Let England Shake, Harvey returns the gaze of her audience in piercing kind, and – as has been the case for twenty-five years and counting – she refuses to blink first.
My Spin on Masterworks: 20 of 25
Arguments that lament the lack of “original” ideas in music are unbearably boring, and have been so for decades. Yet it’s a point which is raised again and again without fail, usually with the commenter making their claim as if he/she is dropping a bold new truth bomb.
Yes, things are very different in terms of how we process music as a culture. Genuine, head-turning surprises seem to be far fewer in number today, especially given we are granted the gift of hindsight. Thanks in no small part to the breadth and accessibility of music in its current environment, Big Releases are no longer unanimously hallowed as they might once have been. But that’s a given factor of changing times; we aren’t all going to reverentially gather around the stereo on the day of an album’s release like it’s Sgt. Pepper. As for the music itself, down the decades, the landscape has consistently relied on familiar patterns, whether they are being saluted, cribbed, recycled, warped or subverted. Popular phases will come and go in waves, ceaselessly revived and reborn.
But the true “originality” of a work is often far too nebulous to define with any degree of accuracy, and it’s stultifying to dismiss the worth of a song or album simply because it does not offer anything objectively new. The shape and substance of a work of art is measured afresh by each individual beholder; some personal significance can be discovered while perhaps more subtle intentions of the artist at hand go unnoticed. One step beyond this, who is to say that we can’t meddle with existing art to produce something else entirely? After all, it can be easy to the point of comical, since the means to build fresh works with existing materials is boundless. As an example, take a poem from a much-loved legend. Delete half the lines and replace them with your own. Splice it with lines from another poem – a pre-existing one or something you’ve penned yourself. Fiddle with the sequence. Turn the page itself upside-down and transcribe the weird new alphabet. To use a clunky platitude, put your mark on it. In most instances, it’ll be highly likely that what you emerge with would be deemed culturally inferior to the source material. But by having an active hand in reworking something, you have not only made a personal statement, but honoured the accomplishments of the creator. Even if your intentions were disparaging, by exhuming the material of someone else, you are expanding and continuing their legacy, validating the worth of their work.
DJ Shadow’s Endtroducing is defined by this spirit. It pushes for innovative new forms while being almost entirely composed of sounds that existed previously, many of them for years. DJ Shadow – aka Joshua Paul Davis – spent years scavenging record stores, yard sales and musty basements of the West Coast in his obsession to discover forgotten treasures, and in his music, he grants each of them new life. The fascinating documentary Scratch shows the extent to which he reveres the work of artists who put their imaginations to record, and in his restless cratedigging, he has unearthed the work of countless lifetimes. Many of the records he celebrates were discarded in their own time, dissolving into faint memory or total obscurity. But with Endtroducing, DJ Shadow holds them up to the light once more, building a fascinating collage of long-lost snippets which bind together brilliantly, each piece colliding with another to spark fresh energy.
Gaudy horror soundtracks that whiff of messy rendering are dusted down and stripped back until a strange beauty glimmers through. Tumbling boom baps are layered beneath chaotic drones and cameo appearances from detached voices: dialogue from left-field cinema (the chatter that ushers in ‘Napalm Brain/Scatter Brain’ is pulled from bonkers 1986 sci-fi western The Aurora Encounter), refrains from artists both contemporary (Beastie Boys) and time-worn (The Turnettes), and all sorts of other curios. While the sum total features barely a note of his own composition, in piecing together Endtroducing, DJ Shadow nurtured an undeniably original creation. It may have roots firmly planted in the past, but Endtroducing’s various branches grow and twist into shapes that are all its own.
Listeners with greater knowledge than I will certainly be able to perceive the deeper nuances in DJ Shadow’s work, and to more astutely appreciate his technical skills and the influence that his work has had across sampling, instrumental hip-hop, and beyond. But when it comes to the pure enjoyability of the album in of itself, Endtroducing is a wall-to-wall delight. For all its breadth, the album’s flow is steady and enticing, reminiscent of a hazy, half-remembered dream: ghosts of the past regenerated in one long, textured suite. Swept into this journey are dramatic epics (the sci-fi freakout ‘Stem/Long Stem’), ethereal urban ambience (‘Midnight in a Perfect World’), and landslides of hip-hop debris (‘The Number Song’ and ‘Mutual Slump’, both of which collapse a mass of source material into queasy, oppressive heaps).
Whether his cuts are audacious or subtle, DJ Shadow’s fine-tuned approach births genuine wonders. ‘Napalm Brain-Scatter Brain’ intently builds to towering heights with such apparent ease that it’s hard to believe it’s founded on a sequence of disparate elements. It sounds as organic as the work of Jon Hopkins while never hiding the crackly artifice of its various components. Suitably for its title, ‘Changeling’ mutates from one form to another, its spacey swirl interweaved with passages of beefy slow jams, skittering drones, and heavy-lidded jazz. Alongside these daring works are some more bizarre little non-sequiturs: who is the “beautiful girl” with “eyes as big as jolly ranchers” who gets a mention during the album’s untitled cut? Why are the album’s three ‘Transmission’ pieces so strangely unnerving? Above all, how does it all fit together so well?
DJ Shadow’s own apparent philosophy is teed up in a sampled interview with George Marsh that surfaces during the exquisite ‘Building Steam from a Grain of Salt’. As the track draws to a close, Marsh – an esteemed jazz drummer and lecturer – announces that “I would like to be able to continue to let what is inside of me […] which comes from all the music that I hear; I’d like for that to come out. And it’s like, it’s not me that’s coming. The music’s coming through me.” This notion of an artist merely serving as a vehicle for the work often comes across as pretentious twaddle, but with DJ Shadow’s careful resurrection of Marsh’s words, and supported by the song’s breathtaking melange of sound, it washes as wholly genuine. Literally, with his work, DJ Shadow takes lost treasures and finds a new form of communication, blazing new trails with instruments of the past.
Endtroducing is a paean to sound and the craft behind it; an album built with love, care, wisdom and wit. Despite being made with minimal tech, it more than holds its own in the modern fray, even beyond sample-based work. It can be spun comfortably next to Pink Floyd, Public Enemy, Four Tet, Portishead, Radiohead… most anything. It’s a thrilling listen for casual audiophiles, as well as offering a fount of long-lost gems for seasoned cratediggers, who can spend hours and days on end hunting through its many layers and non-sequiturs to find each single lift and tip of the hat. And no matter how little new material was conceived in its production, Endtroducing is an album as original as any you’ll ever hear. It’s a diverse, inclusive, and entertaining trip into weird and wonderful places, guided by your favourite DJ saviour. Dig in.