February 23, 2011

New Music: PJ Harvey, Radiohead

It appears to the be the year for English pop artists to engage in political critique -- well, sort of. Who knew musicians could still find their arsenal by tarrying with the pastoral tradition?

PJ Harvey's Let England Shake isn't terribly complex ("How is our glorious country sown? Not with wheat and corn" -- "Our land is plowed by tanks!" Harvey sings on "The Glorious Land"), but musically there's a lot going on. Harvey's familiar songwriting style is stronger than ever (best heard in songs like "Bitter Branches" and "In the Dark Places"), but it seems she's taken the lessons of failed albums like White Chalk and her recent collaboration with John Parish (A Woman a Man Walked By) to heart: here, murky production, disparate soundscapes, and a Victorian-gothic aesthetic merge with reflections on post-colonial England: a nation constantly in dialogue with its own legacy (as she demonstrates on the haunting centerpiece, "England"). Harvey's approach is to play with, juxtapose, subvert cultural resting places with a downright bloody history: into this mix she throws lines from English protest songs, reggae samples, and tons of autoharp. In other words, Harvey's task with Let England Shake is to re-energize the English tradition of political critique. It could have been a heavy-handed train-wreck, but in Harvey's hands (and thanks incredible team she's assembled: Rob Ellis, Mick Harvey, John Parish, Flood, etc.), Let England Shake reminds PJ Harvey fans why we came to love her in the first place: not for her brilliant insights, but for the raw emotion that can only come by looking the devil in the face.

Radiohead's music always gestures toward some kind of late capitalist malaise, and The King of Limbs is no different. Indeed, this time around there seems to be a strong resonance between the natural imagery transparently there (both in the cover art and in Yorke's lyrics) and a recently resurfaced debate over forest enclosures throughout much of Britain. But regardless of its political timeliness, The King of Limbs is a strange animal. As is often the case with Radiohead's albums, early reviews have been typically vague. It's not their best album -- I think we're all agreed on that -- but neither should it be written off as a misstep. The King of Limbs is a good album, but it's also their most idiosyncratic -- only Amnesiac comes close. There's a strong dubstep influence and the more organic elements that characterized In Rainbows have retreated into the shadows only to reemerge in two oddly situated tracks: the lovely, effortless, out-of-place piano ballad, "Codex," and its partner, the echo-chamber folk song, "Give up the Ghost." The rest of the album is comprised of rhythmically complex songs that seem to fold in on themselves; at times, one wonders what the rest of the band was up to during recording sessions. As for immediate highlights, there's the devious lead single (below) "Lotus Flower" (in my opinion, this is one best tracks of the year so far), the very catchy, occasionally clumsy "Little by Little" (which picks up nicely from Amnesiac's "I Might be Wrong") and an album closer ("Separator") that actually does something -- to put it a bit differently, "Separator" is more expansive than what we get on the rest of The King of Limbs: it incorporates a fantastic lead guitar line, releases some (dearly missed) ambient steam, and gets as close to an anthem ("Wake me up") as Radiohead can currently get. We Radiohead fans need not despair. The King of Limbs is full of fine moments. More than anything else, we're victims of our own anticipation.

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