When I quit making records in 2001, I had a lot of different thoughts bolting around my brain. One of them was that since musicians almost always do their best work in their 20’s, I was heading for a period of diminishing creative returns, even if that didn’t mean diminishing rewards in terms of money and attention. I thought maybe it would be cooler and more mature to let it go and move to something that would be less centered on myself, namely teaching, my current day job. I didn’t want to end up in the “Steel Wheels Phase,” a phrase a friend of mine coined to capture the point at which bands become businesses rather than creative collectives. Another friend once teased me for my assertion that The Folk Implosion would never make half-hearted records containing warmed over versions of old hits by saying, “you don’t know that. A few more records for Interscope and you could find yourself coming up with something “Automatic for the People.” Referring, of course, to the late REM record, rather than the late Rolling Stones record evoked by the Steel Wheels Phase.
Recently, I’ve been rethinking this whole angle, thanks to some amazing records made by artists of a certain age. To thank them for inspiring me to start recording again – I never stopped writing – I’m starting a series of posts about 40 records made by artists over 40. Or rather, I should say, I’ve already started it. I’m titling this post Top 40 Over 40.2 because my last post on Emmylou Harris’s Wrecking Ball qualifies for this list as the first entry. I’ve also updated and added to that post today to make it more in keeping with this theme – see the part towards the end about Emmylou’s ideas about zigs and zags and non-linear narratives that are more in keeping with the truths that age reveals.
My second example of a great record made by an artist over 40 is Let England Shake by PJ Harvey. (Is it a coincidence that these two records were both made by women? Are women more likely to engage with the issues associated with aging more fully than men? Or do I just like to write about great artists I have crushes on?)
Usually when you hear a record by an artist of this age, you compare it to an earlier body of work you’re already a fan of. In my case, I had really only heard one song by PJ that Lou put on a cassette mix he made for me back in 1992. (Yuri-G) I liked it but not enough to go out and buy one of her albums. Maybe it was the lack of comparison to past work, but this record floored me when I first heard it via NPR First Listen. I immediately bought it. The song “The Last Living Rose” was the first one on the album to really get to me. It’s rare to find someone who can write about history in a way that is organic and suited to the confines of a single voice, since history is nothing if not the reality of an infinite chorus of dissonant voices. But the line “fog rolling down the mountains on the graves of dead sea captains” evoked the ghosts of British Imperialism in a way that marked by an effective combination of a local’s affection for a local landscape with a thinking person’s disgust with the ugly truths about the violence of her society’s history. (I love the following video for this song because it’s one of the few portrayals of elderly people as beautiful, along with the film the Beaches of Agnes by Agnes Varda.)
As John Lydon said in a hilarious recent bus tour of London, “history’s important.” (for more of his take on British society and history watch all the following 5 videos, which I found out when Hamish Kilgour posted them on Facebook.)
Harvey shows this importance by connecting detailed debris of the Empire – like the anachronistic trumpet call to battle that begins the massive and beautiful “The Glorious Land” – with graphic and even gory images of the violence of the current war on terror, such as the following lines from “The Words That Maketh Murder.”
“I’ve seen and done things I want to forget
I’ve seen soldiers fall like lumps of meat
Blown and shot out beyond belief
Arms and legs were in the trees.”
Lines like this are delivered with melodies that are both beautiful and misleadingly simple. It’s rare that I hear guitar playing based on strumming chords that sounds unique and powerful. There’s something about the chord changes of the best songs on this album that avoids the pitfall of reminding me too much of 100 other pop songs using similar intervals. The video for The Glorious Land provides an image for the way in which she pulls this off: (it also shows her using a vintage MXR distortion pedal I used to use on early Folk Implosion records, I wish I still had it.) You can see it as it comes up on the menu that appears at the end of the above video for “The Words That Maketh Murder,” along with the rest of the videos from this series, (the same director made one for every song on the album in a similar vein. They’re all amazing.)
Maybe it’s the autoharp (is that what it’s called?) that she uses sometimes instead of regular guitars. Or the way the breezy production highlights the cymbals of the drum kit in such a way as to blend them with the air that can be heard in the echo drenched guitars. The record has the standard rock instruments but never sounds like a heavy handed or muddy. There are lots of quiet passages – but not in the standard Pixies sense. Drums are absent, or quiet, or single for entire sections of songs. Harvey often lets the instrumental parts play on for quite some time before she enters with her vocals, reminding me of a shorter version of the arrangements favored by the late great Fela Kuti. The drummer plays with brushes on about half of the record, and sometimes snaps the hi hat shut on the 2 and 4 like a jazz drummer. (Rock drummers typically hit the snare on the 2 and 4 instead.) Acoustic pianos float over the drums, bass and guitars alongside sounds that are hard to identify – church organs perhaps – the album was recorded in a stone rural church. They float over the top in a way that remains audible because the bottom end doesn’t suck them in. And yet the record sounds massive and powerful, more so to my ears than a “louder” rock band’s album, or indeed, more so than some of her earlier more conventional records, including the one produced by Steve Albini.
I especially liked hearing this record during a recent trip that was interrupted by a massive traffic jam on a highway. There had been an accident up ahead of me that must have been quite severe. There were several emergency vehicles that blocked off the road to the point that all the cars around me were turned off. It really was like a parking lot. Soon we found out why the authorities had close off the road. A helicopter came into view and gradually lowered itself onto the highway where the accident had taken place to lift the victims of the crash out from the traffic jam to take them to the hospital as soon as possible. They must have been in critical condition, if they were all still alive.
Most of the people around me on the highway seemed totally indifferent to the fate of those involved in the crash. Muscle bound guys wandered around between the parked cars mugging for photos taken by cell phones. They smiled and draped their arms around each other as if they wanted to be documented for having caught a marlin on a fishing trip. As I listened to the my favorite songs from Let England Shake on repeat in my car, they made me notice certain things about this scene I might not have thought of otherwise. Like the potential of masses of people to turn a blind eye to death and violence. The massive momentum of automotive culture in this country that leads to the violence we have perpetuated in the oil-rich Middle East from Eisenhower’s overthrow of Iran’s Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh in 1952 to the wars Harvey was singing about that are taking place today. (The chorus of “The Glorious Land” expands the album’s scope to this country, as the sardonic refrain, “Oh America, Oh England!” serenades the alliance Tony Blair cemented when he signed on to participate in George Bush’s invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan.)
The echoey guitars of “Written on the Forehead” sounded especially great in this context. The lines about people casually pursuing spectacle amidst a dystopian scene of energy warfare – “people throwing dinars at the belly dancers / In a sad circus by a trench of burning oil” – seemed to apply here on the highway of the metropole as well as to the distant battlefields of the neo-colony, where Harvey’s character “talked to an old man by the generator / He was standing in the gravel by the fetid river / He turned to me and answered, “Baby see,” / Said “War is here in our beloved city.” ” The video for Let England Shake looks at a British fair ground in a similar way:
Maybe one reason her songs on these issues worked was their relative brevity. PJ doesn’t browbeat you with her sentiments and observations on this record. Just as a song like “The Last Living Rose” hooked me in to what it ways putting across, it ended, leaving me wanting to more know about that feeling, rather than feeling that I had exhausted it.
The great videos director Seamus Murphy made for this album are similarly effective. Rather than browbeat you with images of war, they cut images of the violence abroad together with scenes of everyday life in England that shows how close these geographically dispersed scenes really are. Sometimes the connection is obvious. Murphy uses shots of young cadets in training in British military academies, and his camera wanders across a television screen filled with one of the many video games based on “The War on Terror.” Some of these games have been used by the US Army at recruiting stations located inside of shopping malls. I don’t know whether the same practice exists in England.
The following video, for “Written On the Forehead,” is one of several in this series that begin with an anonymous civilian reciting the first verse of the song as poetry. Unlike the others, this time the language we hear spoken is Arabic. It cannot be a coincidence that the rest of the video shows more of the violence abroad than the others in the series.