Well, at least the music was great.
The Hope Six Demolition Project
I didn’t find the time to write about the gigs I attended during 2016, but possibly my favourite live experience was PJ Harvey’s headline show at Field Day festival. Backed by a fearsome phalanx of tight-knit musicians and largely sticking with her new material, she sounded magnetic, gutsy, and utterly commanding from start-to-finish. It was a show that accentuated the strengths of The Hope Six Demolition Project, which casts a cold look at American foreign policy and the damage is has increasingly wrought on a global scale. Harvey’s reportage is less concentrated in its focus than 2011’s mighty Let England Shake, and more loosely bound in both sound and vision, but it’s no less unflinching in its coverage of the failures of government and communities alike. With her band strafing confidently between rollicking rallies (‘The Community of Hope’), militant stomps (‘Chain of Keys’) and eerie hymnals (‘River Anacostia’), Harvey presides over a rich tableau of sound, one whose edges are roughened and fraying to match her snapshots of poverty and decay. The results are frequently remarkable: ‘The Ministry of Defence’ lands like a hammerblow, and the combination of queasy, surging blues and Harvey’s steely refrains on ‘The Wheel’ still sends goosebumps shuddering up my back.
“Hey little children, don’t disappear / I heard it was twenty-eight thousand.”
Over the course of the year, I came to consider Boy King as something of a guilty pleasure. While it was far from panned, the general consensus among critics (and friends) has been that Wild Beasts’ fifth is below par for the group: a bold but disappointing swerve into uncharacteristically simple scuzz-rock. Well, sod those claims, and sod any notions of this record as a “guilty” pleasure. Its overall effect may be less spellbinding and poetic than that of its predecessors, but I love Boy King for its neon-hued aesthetic and unapologetically punchy approach. Here is the sound of a band following its gut instincts and going for broke: taking small but significant stylistic risks and sounding alive with glee as a result. As their delightful live shows this year proved, Wild Beasts are invigorated afresh as a quartet, and on record, the muscular production of John Congleton suits the relapse of Hayden Thorpe and Tom Fleming’s more salacious appetites: the vocalists skewering the perils of modern masculinity while simultaneously basking in its intoxicating glow. In a nutshell, Boy King is a simmering platter of thumping beats, grimy grooves, and low-slung sleaze from one of my favourite contemporary bands. That’s how I get my bang.
“These are blessed times that we’re living in / Down here on Earth all is forgiven.”
A Tribe Called Quest
We Got It From Here… Thank You 4 Your Service
In modern times, it has become tiresomely easy to spot the bands whose comebacks have been hastened for the sake of self-indulgence, financial necessity, or even boredom. The spark of true relevance and artistic purpose is unmistakable, and the return of A Tribe Called Quest not only feels genuine in intentions, it’s an aching relief to witness their return at this particular time. Since Tribe last put their manifestos to record in 1998, a lot has changed – in the music industry itself, let alone on a global scale. But in other cases, some things haven’t changed enough, and as 2016’s headlines were apparently keen to attest, the world is rapidly backsliding at an alarming pace. Such is the climate in which Tribe were finally compelled to drop new material: equal parts aural balm and calms to mobilise. Urgency runs deep through We Got It From Here…, which runs to an hour of knotty, hard-hitting polemics without once losing its fire. With an intimidating roster of personnel ensuring that the production is tighter than ever, the bond of Tribe’s core members gleams at the heart of this record; the group ensuring that humanism shines through every bar. Just as they did twenty years ago, Tribe sound galvanised to be at the fray’s forefront, demanding that unity and happiness are recognised as more than abstract ideals: they’re rights.
“Motherfuck your numbers and your statisticians / Fuck y’all know about true competition?”
If her past albums released as Antony Hegarty were quiet in their potency, the first album released under Anohni’s new moniker ruthlessly stamps such tremulous beauty into memory with all-consuming rage. HOPELESSNESS is an unflinching riposte to the western world that lets nobody off the hook – including the listener. She spends these eleven cuts shooting from different perspectives and taking aim at various figures in a takedown of ideological apathy on topics ranging from climate change to drone warfare, treatment of terrorists and beyond. It’s a scattergun approach, but Anohni and her collaborators have produced a record of such ruthless directness that it lands with explosive force. The icy bluster of the music (largely courtesy of Hudson Mohawke and Oneohtrix Point Never) is dramatic to the point of confrontational: ‘4 Degrees’ strikes with booming severity, Anohni eviscerating our collective complicity in natural destruction for the sake of our own comfort. Elsewhere, execution is presented as a facet of the American dream over sparkling keys, the creepy ‘Obama’ levels crushed disappointment and fury at the outgoing President, and ‘Crisis’ is wrenchingly direct in its empathy with innocent victims of America’s military force. You could reasonably summarise the whole enterprise as heavy-handed and clunky, but given the scale of Anohni’s ambitions and the blatant horrors in her firing line, her sober tone is more than suitable: it cuts through our willful silence with severity.
“We are all Americans now.”
Cate Le Bon
Cate Le Bon’s own website summarises the songwriter’s fourth album as “a coalition of inescapable feelings and fabricated nonsense, each propping the other up”. It’s a suitably muzzy description for an album that combines clear, gorgeous melodies with fragmented observations, each tinged with a dreamlike quality. Yet beneath the wonky neo-psychedelia and playful riddles, what impresses most over repeated listens is the melodic muscle on display from Le Bon and her group. The overall ambience is akin to being invited into Le Bon’s own home, and peering through the vibrant clutter that fills all spaces in sight: the coat hangers, the crumby cookbooks, handprints on the windows, dusty cream blinds. Amid these environs, she sings and performs with a lightness of touch; her delivery artful but far from precious, high on wonder rather than a thickly fragrant haze. The results are intimate, inventive, and companionable: her influences are plain to see, but it’s a delight to sit with Crab Day and surrender to Le Bon’s melodic and lyrical fancies.
“All the towns are miniature / All the girls are beautiful ghosts.”
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.