Friday, March 11, 2011

Two new releases, the Legends Edition: PJ Harvey, "Let England Shake"; Mogwai, "Hardcore Will Never Die But You Will"

PJ Harvey, "Let England Shake".

I was one of those people who never really forgave PJ Harvey for not making another ten "Rid of Me"'s. I got over it around the time I finally appreciated the greatness of "To Bring You My Love". The process took years -- after "Is This Desire?", I understood that she was serious about not ever repeating herself and leaving her past behind, then I relapsed a bit thanks to the occasional caustic moment on "Stories From the City, Stories From the Sea" (e.g. "The Whores Hustle and the Hustlers Whore") while at the same time my conscience pestered me that she was gravitating toward Lilith Fair ("We Float") a lot faster than she was approaching the day when she'd write another "Rub Till It Bleeds". It was like a 12-step program, where of course the first step is where you accept that "Rid of Me Vols. 2-10" aren't going to happen. In the meantime, you might as well revisit the music that does exist. Incidentally, this was also around the time that I fell out with "Is This Desire?", finding it too slow going and one-dimensional compared to the more varied "To Bring You My Love".

The pre-release hype for "Let England Shake" was really intense -- it was the first PJ Harvey release in ages that felt like an "event". I read a number of the multitude of interviews she gave, explaining the concepts behind the album and how it was recorded, and it seemed like a project too ambitious for her or just about any other artist. Months of research on the First World War, writing lyrics months before picking up an instrument to put the words to music, recording everything in a church in just a few weeks? She'd disappointed me in the past ("Uh Huh Her" was particularly horrible) and I hoped that I wouldn't be disappointed this time. And it turned out that all the hype was warranted. "Let England Shake" is tremendous, easily her best since "To Bring You My Love" (and maybe *including* it -- oddly enough, there are no two more similar sounding albums in her catalogue than LES and TBYML) and an early contender for the best album of 2011.

All her research paid off. As ridiculous as that sentence looks when viewed in isolation in reference to an album, she deserves it. Parts of "Let England Shake" could pass for the kind of work that Billy Bragg and Wilco did with Woody Guthrie's lyrics -- it's like she took the words from folk tunes and various ditties sung by soldiers in the trenches one hundred years ago and put them to music. The lyrics sound like the kind of letters that soldiers used to write home from the trenches, describing the horror and loneliness of war to loved ones they thought they'd never see again. I really can't say enough about how authentic these voices are. PJ Harvey showed that she could master the art of "writing in character" on "Is This Desire?", but the words on "Let England Shake" blow away all her earlier work in that regard, not least because of the degree of difficulty involved and how little precedent there is for this type of album in "rock" music.

"The Words That Maketh Murder" is particularly chilling, spinning its yarns of limbs hanging in trees, soldiers falling like lumps of meat, flies everywhere, and it's bitterly ironic closing mantra of "what if I take my problem to the United Nations?" -- brilliantly turning the Big Bopper's iconic lyric on its head. Another line that really gets to me is the opening line of "Written on the Forehead" ("people throwing dinars at the belly dancers"), I don't know why, but it's "stranger in a strange land" sentiment, and the idea of people risking their lives one minute and wasting their money on exotic delights the next really cuts to my bones. I also love how this song starts out like "The Dancer" and finishes like The Magnetic Fields' "The Dreaming Moon". And like any great album closer, "The Colour of the Earth" (which fittingly enough, is about not being able to forget the "dull and brown-y red" colour of the ground on the day he last saw his friend on the battlefield), sticks in your head long after the album is over.

Mogwai, "Hardcore Will Never Die But You Will".

I had talked myself into believing Andrew Gaerig's review for Pitchfork even before I heard the album, mainly because of the big finish: "the band built its reputation on sonic extremes, and that purview has infected their reputation: deliver a masterpiece-- I don't think they have it in them-- or suffer indifference." That's undeniably true, and that sentiment has infected nearly everything I've written about Mogwai over the past ten years. So I prepared myself to be disappointed again.

Your opinion on the album will depend on how you view the follow-up lines in Gaerig's review - "On 'Hardcore' Mogwai sound like they're enjoying being Mogwai again. I'm ready to enjoy them being Mogwai again too." The changes are subtle, perhaps, but they're there. This is the first proper Mogwai album since "Happy Songs For Happy People" where I don't feel like they're trying harder to be Black Sabbath than themselves. I disagree when he says that "White Noise" is a vanilla opening track (was "Hunted By a Freak" vanilla too?). To me, it sounds like a seamless combination of tender melodies and crunching noise -- the key word being "combination", because too much of their output over the past five years has been focused on noise crushing melody, rather than noise attempting to get along peacefully with melody. "George Square Thatcher Death Party" is a fantastic example of how Mogwai can get heavy without trying to prove how big their balls are, while still managing something that comes close to a "real" rock song with vocals and everything.

A lot of people are big-upping non-album track "Music For a Forgotten Future" as being better than anything on "Hardcore", but I think they're mostly people who slept on their soundtrack for "Zidane: A 21st Century Portrait".

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