Skip to main content

Then and Now


Radiohead and PJ Harvey produced some of the first albums I ever bought. To varying degrees both musicians have stayed with me. I own just about every full album each ever released and when both of these artists released a new album this past month, I snapped them up.


It's strange listening to bands for this long. Especially in the case of PJ Harvey, the music contained within The Hope Six Demolition Project seems very much of the same cloth as other music she's released. "A Line in the Sand" sounds like a B-side from "Stories from the City, Stories from the Sea." And yet, the music has deepened over time - matured - to grasp the most obvious word. Harvey's vocals curl around the layered instruments, howl when it's time to cut loose, press right up against the ground in a sinister whisper. This is one of Harvey's more stripped-down albums. In comparison to Let England Shake, the riffs are simple and blocky, the rhythms martial and abrupt. Her first album, Dry, was like this - minus the studio craft unavailable to a independent musician back in 1992. The guitar here has the same loping, feral quality of that early album.

One big change is PJ's perspective seems to have broadened over time. Dry was at once jarringly personal and mythic - the kind of music so intense and claustrophobic it could implode Stonehenge. Hope Six is looser but more traveled. It weaves in vignettes of a walk through the National Mall and the street life of Kosovo and Afghanistan. This is music drenched in terror. Apocalyptic imagery has always existed in PJ Harvey's work, but a global accounting seems very near. "This is how the world ends," Polly Jean sings, the music pounding terrain already leveled by bombs and indifference.



Radiohead, for me, still seems an unlikely survivor of the early 90s alternative moment. Their most famous single (still?) "Creep," seemed one more self-loathing, improbably catchy grunge anthem in a year lousy with them. To be clear, I love "Creep," and listen to it without the slightest twinge of embarrassment. I struggle to enjoy my favorite Pearl Jam singles so effortlessly.

Perhaps this British band's true talent was finding a sound in nearly every album that captured the feeling of a certain moment without ever seeming captured by it. OK Computer still sounds fresh and Kid A is perhaps more timely now then when it was released. Their new album achieves a similar effect.

"Moon Shaped Pool," is a great record. There's nothing here with same force as "Karma Police," "Optimistic," or "Bodysnatchers," but the music finds new ways of mesmerizing, of grabbing hold. The first track, "Burn the Witch" has a scorched earth title without ever pulling out the flamethrowers. Staccato strings replace guitar pummelling, and Thom Yorke's vocals hover in the seconds-away-from-full-panic-attack mode he basically trademarked. The key difference here from the songs mentioned above - the song never quite gives way to full release. The song builds, swells into a shattering crisis, and pulls back. Instead of verse and chorus, Radiohead ride waves of anxiety, ripples of dread. The song ends on a crumbling crescendo - as if the song is dissolving beneath the flailing singer.

That's what has me hooked at the moment - the fact that each song can be so many things but retain a coherent statement. In less confident hands, these songs would be a mess - but Radiohead has enough experience to hold the collage together. There's something of Talk Talk in this album, songs that don't reject convention so much as trade them in for new patterns.

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Reading Response to "A Good Man is Hard to Find."

Reader Response to “A Good Man is Hard to Find” Morgan Crooks I once heard Flannery O’Connor’s work introduced as a project to describe a world denied God’s grace. This critic of O’Connor’s work meant the Christian idea that a person’s misdeeds, mistakes, and sins could be sponged away by the power of Jesus’ sacrifice at Crucifixion. The setting of her stories often seem to be monstrous distortions of the real world. These are stories where con men steal prosthetic limbs, hired labor abandons mute brides in rest stops, and bizarre, often disastrous advice is imparted.  O’Connor herself said of this reputation for writing ‘grotesque’ stories that ‘anything that comes out of the South is going to be called grotesque by the northern reader, unless it is grotesque, in which case it is going to be called realistic.’ This is both a witty observation and a piece of advice while reading O’Connor’s work. These are stories about pain and lies and ugliness. The brutality that happens to characters …

Arisia 2019: Wrap Report

Arisia 2019 is over!

It’s back to the real world this week after an entire weekend in Arisia 2019. I go to this convention every year, but this one will definitely be special to me. For one thing, this is the year that felt, at least for a moment, like it wasn’t going to happen. If the debacle with the e-board wasn’t enough, there was the strike at the Westin. The convention felt slimmer this year for sure. A lot of people self-selected to not come this year and honestly with the smaller, more confined venue of the Boston Park Plaza, that was a decision enormously beneficial to my enjoyment of this con.
I had a blast. I was more invested in the panels this year because I wrote a portion of them. It’s one thing to go to a panel and listen for reading suggestions, or new ideas, or people to follow on social media, but it’s quite another to put together a panel of people to create a very specific conversation and then get to sit back to see how the discussion plays out. I loved that aspect…

All Words Are Made Up

The title of this post (and the panel I’m participating in for Arisia 2019) come from a random exchange between Thor and Drax in last year’s “Infinity War” movie. It’s what Thor replies when to Drax when the always literal-minded hero doubts the existence of Niðavellir its forge. It’s a funny throw-away line and the title of this post because I think there’s always been a bit of defensiveness on my part when I add some invented vocabulary to a story of mine.

The art and craft of inventing new languages has a surprisingly long history. A 12th century nun by the Saint Hildegard is credited with one of the first (sadly incompletely recorded) constructed language. There was also a period during the Enlightenment when the creation of ‘philosophical languages,’ meant to resolve age-old problems and reshape society, were the vogue. Gottfried Leibniz, for example, tried to a create a language that was logically self-consistent. The task proved too much for him, but that drive to bring the peop…