Culturespill » P.J. Harvey

Albums to look out for this spring: “Let England Shake,” P.J. Harvey

8th February



Courtney Love, who hasn’t a fraction of Polly Jean’s talent, nonetheless managed to say something about P.J. that actually was genuinely interesting: that her breakthrough album Live Through This was the record she’d been waiting for Polly Jean Harvey to make. To listen to Live Through This in 2011 is to hear just how obscenely overrated a record it is–no one could have heard the bullshit through the bluster back in 1994–and Harvey put out a record in To Bring You My Love the following year that kicks seven shades of crap out of anything Love has done since. But even so, her remark about Harvey’s work rings as true today as ever before.

The woman is now eight albums deep in a recording career that has spanned such a broad range of sounds and moods it’s as if she records specifically to defy the notion that there is any particular album she’s supposed to make. If anything is to be taken from the catalog of releases she’s assembled by now, it’s that P.J. Harvey makes only the records she wants to make; and if they don’t sound like something others expect of her, that’s their problem.

From Rid of Me to the brilliant but comparatively overlooked Is This Desire to Stories from the City, Stories From the Sea and 2007’s fascinating (if bizarre) White Chalk, Harvey’s catalog documents a creative restlessness that few of her peers can boast. Each album is such a markedly different experience from the next that it’s as if Harvey roams a new imagination with each release. Just as Stories From the City roared out of your stereo with frothing rockers like “Big Exit” and turned out the lights with the ethereal balladry of “We Float,” the record’s frenetic follow-up, Uh Huh Her, evinced total discomfort with the accessibility of its predecessor. The unyielding grunge of Rid of Me soon gave way to the hook-hungry pop rock of “Angeline.” And the chilling, spare atmosphere of White Chalk yielded  a batch of songs that coated everything Harvey had done before then in a dusting of snow.

Now we have Let England Shake (due out February 15th), a record as unremittingly political as Rid of Me was savage, and a 41-year-old Harvey vowing to wait ten years before the next album if she has to, crowning herself an official “war songwriter” in the vein of “war poets” like Wilfred Owen, and singing of soldiers that fall on the battlefield “like lumps of meat.” Harvey recently told the Financial Times that she has “always been profoundly interested and affected by what’s happening in the world,” but that she never found a way to address that dimension of herself in her songs.

By all appearances, Let England Shake rather definitively marks the moment when she found a way. Recorded in “a 19th century church on a cliff overlooking the sea” with a cast of usual suspects such as John Parish and Mick Harvey, the songs navigate a history of warfare ranging from Gallipoli to Afghanistan. And Harvey reportedly abandoned herself to an insatiable appetite for research before writing these songs, scouring everything from the work of T.S. Eliot and Harold Pinter to books on World War I.

The music this time around is more fully developed than anything on White Chalk yet still, somehow, almost as unsettling (as on tracks like The Glorious Land or Bitter Branches). And her vocals, as always, explore a range from tenderness to rage and never fail to engage no matter where on that spectrum they fall. Let England Shake may not do for her career what Stories From the City did, but it is unlikely to be easily forgotten, either.


17th December


If you find yourself browsing a site like this one on a Friday night, chances are you know by now that Captain Beefheart is dead, finally released from the horror of a prolonged battle with multiple sclerosis. Chances are also good that you’ve come across one of the many slapped-together obits crowding the web tonight, where you learned that Beefheart was frienemies with Frank Zappa and influenced Tom Waits. How boring. In most cases the people who wrote them know that because they read it on Wikipedia five minutes beforehand or borrowed from some one else’s blog post. It appears that that is largely the way Beefheart will be remembered–as the guy who struck a War-of-The-Roses kindship with Frank Zappa in the Mojave Desert and whelped a strangeling called Tom Waits.

But to confine the man’s influence on rock ‘n roll merely to his own era is to dishonor him. Listen to Joan Osborne’s “Right Hand Man” from her 1995 album Relish and you will hear the exact replica of the riff from Beefheart’s early 1970s gem “Clear Spot.” Listen to P.J. Harvey’s “I Think I’m A Mother” from her seminal LP To Bring You My Love and you will hear a half-sleeping and fiendish take on Beefeart’s “Dropout Boogie” from his uproarious debut with the Magic Band, Safe as Milk–perhaps the first “punk” record to ever hit the streets. It is no accident that “Right Hand Man” is likely the finest few minutes Joan Osborne has ever committed to tape, that the record on which Harvey paid her peculiar homage to the man is in all likelihood the one she’ll always be remembered for, that these disciples found inspiration in his work more than a decade after he left it in the dust following 1982’s swan song Ice Cream for Crow, almost never to be heard from again (Well, he did sing Happy Birthday to the Earth over the telephone for a benefit album produced by an environmental law firm in 2003).

No other group at the time even approximated the sounds that Beefheart and his band of crazies explored on Safe as Milk in 1967. Not the snotty riff that bites the pin off the grenade of “Plastic Factory” as Beefheart bathes it in some of the filthiest electric mouth harp you’ll hear this side of Little Walter, not the sweating acid trip that is “Zig Zag Wandeerer” or “Abba Zabba Zoom,” not those wickedly psychedelic licks of slide guitar that open the album on “Sure ‘Nuff ‘N Yes I Do.” Beefheart would never again cut a record as simultaneously accessible and defiant as Safe as Milk, and he would struggle to sell his brand of madcap fusion to consumers and critics alike over the years. But that’s how it is when you’re brilliant enough that your sculptures get featured on a TV show when you’re four years old and you earn a six-year full scholarship to study marble sculpture in Europe at age 13.

1969’s Trout Mask Replica is as famous today for nearly cracking the top 50 on Rolling Stone’s 2003 list of the 500 greatest albums of all time as it is for being gloriously unlistenable. It’s no starting place for novices but it’s a nightmare to savor over and over again when you’re ready to handle it.  A host of more accessible gems followed, some boasting song titles that make Ween albums sound like nursery rhymes–“Making Love to a Vampire with a Monkey on My Knee,” “I Wanna Find A Woman That’ll Hold My Big Toe ‘Til I Have to Go,” “Lick My Decals off, Baby,” “I’m Gonna Booglarize You Baby.”The Holy Grail of Beefheart’s oeuvre, though, is his Lick My Decals Off, Baby album of 1970, a record that saw a reissue in the early 1990s that flickered in and out of existence like a lit match flaming out in the rain and posts an asking price upwards of $100 on If you’ve got the dough, it’s worth every damned penny.

Beefheart’s final decades after lifting his middle finger to the music industry for good found him tending to the sculpture and painting with which his creative impulse began. Rumors of his impending demise swirled for years in the same way that rumors of Syd Barrett’s life after Floyd took on the credibility of whispers passed between school kids in an old fashioned game of telephone. But today, sadly, the most recent rumor turns out to be true, as Don Van Vliet, otherwise known as Captain Beefheart, took his permanent leave. Here’s a taste of some of the magic he left behind . . .