Meshuggah – The Violent Sleep of Reason (and other news)

Okay, so, last week I didn’t get a review up; I had a lot of stuff on. However, had I put one up I would’ve touched on two really awesome things that have happened in music recently, so I’m just going to fling them in at the start of this one. First: as a long-time literature geek and a critical-accolade-obsessive in general, I am over the moon that Bob Dylan got awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature this year. It pretty much goes without saying that Dylan’s a great writer, and given that the NPL is meant to demonstrate not only a writer’s skill but also their influence on future writers and their socio-political relevance, Dylan’s about as deserving as anyone alive. But even if only some of that was true, I’m thrilled to see the precedent established that the NPL can be awarded to lyricists. Here’s hoping Kendrick Lamar gets one a few decades down the line.

Second, the album I was going to review last week was Solange’s A Seat at the Table. It’s now a bit too long since that one’s been released for me to have time to cover it if I want to stay on top of things, but it’s a really great album which I absolutely recommend either way. It’s political to much the same degree and in much the same direction as Lemonade was, but it’s a very different beast: patient and reserved where Lemonade was vitriolic and raw. There are some lovely heavy pianos towards the end, but to be honest, the album is at its best when it’s just dealing in different colours of hazy ambience; there’s an antique, preserved-in-amber feel to a lot of the instrumental sections. Definitely give it a look.

Right, with that out of the way – let’s talk about some extreme metal, eh djentlemen? The problem I always have with Meshuggah-esque bands is that although they fill their music with countless intricately moving pieces, the result usually feels more like a Rubik’s cube than an actually functional machine, a complex puzzle that mostly exists to solve itself and doesn’t have much direction beyond that. I say “Meshuggah-esque” bands because it’s never really put me off Meshuggah themselves. A big part of that is commitment to the bit: lyrically and tonally the band are so completely nihilistic that “not going anywhere” feels about as relevant a criticism of them as it would be of Samuel Beckett. And hey, they’ve been doing this for long enough that they’re able to make pretty fascinating Rubik’s cubes anyway. So when I say that the big thing that strikes me about The Violent Sleep of Reason is that it really manages to escape the Rubik’s cube trap, I am not talking about a misguided band seeing the light. I’m talking about a band solving a problem they didn’t need to solve. What I’m trying to get out of this is that The Violent Sleep of Reason is totally fucking sweet. And I’m like a 7 or 7.5 on the Meshuggah fan richter scale, tops; if you’re one of those obsessives who can yell out every time signature change on Chaosphere as it’s happening, this album is going to blow your mind.

As the name suggests, The Violent Sleep of Reason is Meshuggah at their most aggressive, and that manifests in a bunch of different ways. There’s some nightmarishly satisfying atonal leads on top of the title track and a thrashy forward momentum on “Clockworks.” The opening to “Our Rage Won’t Die”, weird time-signatures aside, pounds like golden-era Slayer. Whereas Meshuggah in the past have dealt primarily in low-end chugging outside of their guitar solos, lead player Frederik Thordendal this time around makes his greatest commitment to background ambience: at the start of “By the Ton”, the deep thumping of the rhythm part is set against manic polyrhythmic high-pitched scratching. The result is chaotic in a way the band have never really been in the past, yet what really elevates The Violent Sleep of Reason is how well the band members manage to synchronize. In the past, Meshuggah’s obsession with polyrhythms has served to pull each song apart into its constituent components; the signature Meshuggah magic trick was to weave together a whole mess of different time signatures into something that was still recognisably a coherent song. On The Violent Sleep of Reason, the band plays around with the formula more, and comes in and out of synch; polyrhythms are treated here in the same way that Miles Davis treated modal melodies, not as an exercise but as a kind of foundation. The best example of this by far is on “Nostrum”, which moves from creaking asymmetric guitars and drums into a manic, cascading climax in which all the band members move from tearing each other’s lines apart to a practically indistinguishable mass of writhing sound. The result is an album which feels climactic in a way Meshuggah have never been before. Tracks rise and crest and fall, and while the whole thing is exactly as alienating as you’d expect from a band whose whole career has basically sounded like a Lovecraftian horror’s interpretation of Trout Mask Replica, going along for the ride is completely exhilarating.

The Violent Sleep of Reason is niche as fuck, and while I do think its clear direction and palpable rage make it a better starting point for newcomers than most, this probably isn’t going to be the band’s major break. But while Chasophere and Obzen set high bars to top, it might just be their best album.


Regina Spektor – Remember Us To Life

I always feel a little sad talking about my thoughts on Regina Spektor, because it’s hard to escape the notion that I’m clipping an angel’s wings. Don’t get me wrong, I like Regina Spektor quite a lot, but she’s at her best for me when she’s keeping everything straightforward and… well, pop. Her main strengths as far as I’m concerned are a pretty voice and a real knack for making optimistic lyrics actually come across as genuinely touching rather than saccharine, and that kind of thing works best when the musical quirks aren’t stepping on its toes. And yet Spektor tries so often to move outside of that. She experiments with drastic tempo and rhythm changes in Soviet Kitsch, and with changes in tone on Songs, and every time I’m just left wondering why she had to hack open the golden goose. The same slightly sad rule of thumb applies when summing up Remember Us To Life: when it’s ambitious, it stumbles. When it’s direct, it’s enchanting.

And when I say enchanting, I really do mean enchanting in every sense of the word. There’s next to no cynicism in Spektor’s typical lyrical output, but that’s not to say that there’s not to say that there’s a lack of intelligence. Spektor’s career is a reminder that finding the good in people is just as worthy a task as skewering them, and it’s all the more vital because of how niche a market it is in alternative rock. When Spektor plays to her strengths here, it feels like the climax of a good Pixar movie. “The Grand Hotel”, which stages a restlessly mobile narrative voice over rich rolling pianos and understated strings, is the musical equivalent of running through a field with your arms outstretched at a point in your life when things are good enough to justify running through a field with your arms outstretched. Even more powerful is “The Light”, a slow ballad that brings to mind the steady recollection of memories on waking up the morning after a big change; when Spektor concludes the chorus with a reverent musing of “I know the morning is wiser than the evening/I know that all of life just happens in between”, I am ever so slightly in tears.

To Spektor’s credit, she does sometimes here actually manage to pull off something a little more off-beat as well. “The Trapper and the Furrier” is probably the best example of this. It’s not necessarily a wholly functional song – the heavy chords and intermittent grooves are a little more expressionist than they are effective – but the lyrics are compelling enough to get through it. Indeed, it’s an example of how Spekter’s intensely humanistic lyrical voice can lament without sounding scathing: the song broadly skewers injustice and is mournful rather than outraged. But more often, as usual, the album’s weakest moments are its weirdest. “Bleeding Heart”, the opening track, experiments halfheartedly with electronica, and feels stitched together from too many different parts as a result. “Sellers of Flowers”, rather than playing as the straightforward ballad it promises to be, goes for an operatic theatricality, and the pathos gets lost in the scale. “Tornadoland” goes for a suitably windswept vortex of sound, and although it’s fine enough at any individual moment, the wildness of the song at its climax never quite gels with the gentleness of the verses. What’s worth stressing here is that there are pretty much no motifs on the album that directly fall flat, save maybe some of the ones in “Bleeding Heart” – it’s only on looking at the whole track that you get to see what kind of Frankenstein’s monster the handsome body parts have been stitched into.

Remember Us To Life is a fairly middling album overall in Regina Spektor’s output; it’s not as powerful as Far or What We Saw from the Cheap Seats, but for what it’s worth even the missteps are slick enough that they end up merely dragging otherwise show-stealing motifs into the background, rather than blowing them up in your ears. For what it’s worth, the album at its worst is never worse than fine, and at its best it’s positively lovely. So yeah, worth a look overall.


The Pixies – Head Carrier

Head Carrier feels like it should be a much easier album to recommend than it is. The fact that it’s a good-but-not-great album that happens to be part of the same discography as some of the greatest albums in the alt-rock pantheon ultimately shouldn’t be too relevant in this case. The Pixies aren’t Shyamalan or Metallica; they didn’t suddenly fall off the wagon, and Head Carrier never looked like it was going to be a comeback record. It’s easy to forget, given the popularity of the Pixies now, that they weren’t particularly popular in their glory days; Doolittle and Surfer Rosa only became record-store staples when Kurt Cobain and Jonny Greenwood both swore that they were the best thing since the sexual revolution. By the time most modern day Pixies fans came across them, they’d already hit their peak. Given that their first post-hiatus album, Indie Cindy, largely flew under the radar, nobody was expecting this to be a comeback, and this shouldn’t have to live up to expectations. But, at the end of the day, it kind of does. Because ultimately, given that the Pixies can do better than this, the only real way to approach this album is not “what did the Pixies do”, but “what are the Pixies missing that they need?”

See, Head Carrier plays, weirdly enough, like the slightly lesser band that the Pixies are made out to be in the music press, rather than the band the Pixies actually were. The Pixies are overwhelmingly lumped in with the noisy end of alternative rock; they share most of their fanbase with Sonic Youth and Dinosaur Jr and even Fugazi. And it’s therefore easy to forget that noise was never actually a huge part of the Pixies’ sound. Yes, Santiago’s playing was always rough-textured and aggro, but he played melodies, and melodies that soared, too. Yes, there’s feedback there, but it’s used to complete the melody rather than smother it. But Head Carrier, on a riff-by-riff basis, sounds more like Dinosaur Jr or Husker Du than the Pixies: radio-friendly songwriting dialled up and distorted to fuck. Which isn’t on its own a bad thing, but then Dinosaur Jr have guitar solos and Husker Du have near superhuman vigour. By replacing their melodicism with chaos, the Pixies have lost something and not really gained enough to make up for it.

The lyrics, too, feel like a bad attempt at doing what the Pixies are meant to do. Pixies lyrics are usually touted as being meaningless but weirdly cool-sounding, but then there’s a difference between “meaningless” in an existential sense and “meaningless” in the sense that you’re not making a point. “Debaser” was about avant-garde cinema. “Where Is My Mind” was about scuba diving. “Dead” was a slashfic about biblical characters. This time around, the lyrics aren’t much more poignant or impacting, and they still sound cool – especially on “Um Chagga Lagga” – but somewhere along the line Black Francis forgot that even pointless lyrics stick in the brain better if they’re being flippant about something noteworthy.

And y’know, within that structure – loud, nonsensical, and not much more – the album’s not without its strong moments, particularly in the second half. “Um Chagga Lagga” and “Baal’s Back” are great little riff monsters. “All I Think About Now”, although tragicomically blatantly an attempt to write “Where Is My Mind” again, blends weariness and eeriness nicely. “All the Saints”, a dreamier, driftier number, is a suitable concluder. In fact, it’s hard to put my finger on a moment where the album doesn’t, on some level, work.

Ultimately, returning to my point at the start, Head Carrier is kind of a difficult album to recommend. And that’s not to say it’s bad: it’s a consistently decent album with a few really good moments. But it’s difficult to know who I’d recommend it to. If you’re not in to the Pixies and never really could be, then you probably won’t like it. If you’re not into the Pixies but could be, then sure, Head Carrier is fine, but give Doolittle, Surfer Rosa, the Caribou EP and the first half of Trompe le Monde a listen first. If you are into the Pixies, then yeah, Head Carrier’s a good album that you’ll probably like, but the fact that it’s going to have to be compared to the likes of Doolittle is always going to hang over it. And if you like the Pixies and are always open minded about music and judge everything on its own terms, then… then I salute you. Alt rock’s a cynical scene. You’re a bright sunbeam in a field of black T-shirts and you should reward yourself by listening to this album. You’ll probably get a pretty solid kick out of it.


Devendra Banhart – Ape in Pink Marble

Christ almighty – remember that bit in The Simpsons where Bart comes into school sporting heavy shoes, thick glasses and a hair full of medicated salve, catches a reflection of himself in Milhouse’s glasses and murmurs, horrified, “Oh my God… I’m a nerd?” I feel you, man. There I was at the start of this week, all dressed up in my flannel shirt, moisturising my beard with a tin of some custard-coloured Lush product, loudly playing the new Devendra Banhart album as part of research for my music blog. Turns out I’m a hipster, probably terminally so. So I suppose there’s a part of me which is slightly glad that, after thinking about it for a few days, I don’t really like Ape in Pink Marble all that much, which is fortunate, because Devendra Banhart’s a good songwriter and the pride in avoiding being a complete cliché might just cancel out the disappointment.

The tone for the album is overwhelmingly cheerful, although in a twee, nostalgic sort of way rather than an upbeat way. Synths and guitars – largely smushed into a texturally indeterminate popping twang – meander lazily through melodies largely unrelated to the patterns of either Banhart’s voice or the occasional ticking of percussion. There’s a misty shimmer to the chords and a geode sparkle to the more prominent instruments; lyrics are written and delivered with an old timey sort of courteousness. There’s a sunbeams-in-an-old photograph glow to the whole affair, and the album at its best manages to be a fairly decent soundtrack to your next good-spirited bit of relaxation time. The album works on some level when it manages to give itself some sort of shape: “Fancy Man” has some pretty and quite distinctive guitar licks; “Fig In Leather” rests on a gentle but elegant groove. But even then, it’s a soundtrack and not a rallying call. The emotional tone isn’t specific enough to be relatable, and doesn’t offer much by way of musical catharsis or lyrical insight. It’ll sound appropriate when you’re in the right mood but I wouldn’t rely on it to change your mood, is my point; if you’re expecting to enjoy it as an emotive piece (which is the main way I enjoy music as devoid of riff and groove as this) you’ll find it something of a fairweather friend.

And that’s just the album at its best. Most of it feels like a hodgepodge of Antlers B-sides. Banhart’s refusal to stick with a theme or a melody might come from a sincere commitment to minimalism, but there’s an art to making your vacuity and your aimlessness sound like meditation rather than indulgence; we know that because Nick Cave nailed it straight between the eyes last week. This is usually the point in the review where I cite two or maybe three songs as examples, but honestly here it barely feels warranted, because so much of this album feels not only interchangeable, but indivisible: I can’t really say where one song ends – in terms of achieving a clear raison d’etre – and another begins any more than I can map out the currents in a thick fog.

The lyrics, unfortunately, don’t help matters. As I said, I like Devendra Banhart, and albums like Rejoicing in the Hands worked despite their musical aimlessness because they were tied to if not a clear narrative than at least an overriding theme. On Ape in Pink Marble, lyrics are disconnected vignettes. “Hello, is that you? Come in and have a seat/Remove your shoes, enjoy some fruit/did I mention have a seat?” sings Banhart on “Fig in Leather”; I have no idea who the conversation is between and even less why having a seat is so particularly important. The delivery exacerbates the issue. Banhart sings softly and a little distantly, emphasizing the melodies over the syntax, and it puts the lyrics in the backseat a lot more than his more plaintive early style did.

Ape in Pink Marble isn’t a terrible album. It’s pretty enough, and there’s a sincere sweetness behind it. But it’s candy floss, nothing more: indirect, saccharine, a lot more complex in shape than actual taste, and, at the end of the day, not satisfying.

Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds – Skeleton Tree

Back in business! I hope everyone else had a good summer; I spent mine putting on a show at the Edinburgh Fringe, moving to New York, sobbing to an undignified degree over the end of undergrad, and missing out on chances to review new Frank Ocean and Dinosaur Jr albums (#notbitter). But now the days are getting shorter, we’re all getting older, Trump is looking more and more likely to win the Presidential Election, so let’s gear up for spending the next few months watching the leaves turn brown and playing a merry game of “Is Skeleton Tree the most heartbreaking album of 2016 or is everything just bleak?”

To be clear, I’m still not 100% sure if I’d actually call Skeleton Tree a great album, or even a good one. I’ve heard comparisons to Johnny Cash made, but honestly if we’re going to compare this to classic works of rock melancholia, I’d say this is a spiritual successor to Neil Young’s Tonight’s the Night more than anything else. Both of them have moments that, lyrically, wouldn’t on their own terms pass muster in a first year university creative writing assignment: Cave here eschews his old storytelling chops in favour of abstract imagery in the verses and sometimes nonsensical stream-of-consciousness narrative in the choruses, and picking out even fragmented bits of meaning from it all is next to impossible. Both of them have awkwardly haphazard moments musically. Although Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds never sound quite as ungainly as Young and his boys do on “Mellow my Mind”, songs on Skeleton Tree still feel flung together from too many mismatched spare parts. The drumline on “I Need You” doesn’t match up to the vocal melody too well. The vocal line starts too early on “Rings of Saturn”, and the final line seems completely out of touch with the cadences of the music. In fact the album is as characterized by what it doesn’t do as much as by what it does wrong – virtually no tracks have a proper climax, or even a proper musical change to mark the chorus. But then both albums were preceded by the death of an individual close to the leading musician. And in both cases, the musicians dealt with grief not by writing elegies, but by sticking with what they were initially writing, and just seeming to come apart when recording it.

And in a lot of ways, that’s what makes Skeleton Tree so intensely human. Nick Cave’s always been a showman; we’ve heard him be grief stricken on Abattoir Blues/The Lyre of Orpheus and outright existential on Push the Sky Away, but the eloquence and charisma he employed to bring that off always implied a level of detachment. The difference between this album and those ones is the difference between watching an actor give an Oscar-worthy tragic performance and watching the same actor on the news in tears after experiencing personal trauma: the former might be more cathartic and satisfying, and you’d probably recommend it more, but the latter’s more powerful to watch. The absence of climaxes here sounds like it comes from exhaustion, not laziness. The haphazardness of the melodies sounds like it comes from desperation, not from incompetence. I don’t always understand the meaning of the lyrics, but then that makes it doubly upsetting when Nick Cave sings something too primal not to understand: the low hiss of “close your eyes, little worm, and brace yourself” at the end of “Anthrocene” turns the rest of the song’s apocalyptic ramblings into a kind of existential prophesizing; the anguished moaning of “Just breathe, just breathe” at the end of “I Need You” hits harder still.

And bitch as I do, there is enough skill here to guide the whole process into something listenable. It’s difficult to tell what exactly works on the album in a nuts-and-bolts good-music sense, because it manifests not in riffs or solos – of which there are next to none – but just in a steady sleight of hand, enough to link the whole affair into something coherent. Choosing spatial imagery in the lyrics (count how many times Nick Cave mentions his surroundings, it happens surprisingly often for something so abstract) was a smart move and keeps everything grounded. “Jesus Alone”, which announces its presence with loud Sunn O)))-esque drones and actually achieves a degree of upwards motion with its keyboard-based chorus, makes for an attention-grabbing opening track.

Skeleton Tree isn’t the Nick Cave album I was expecting. Despite coming from an artist who sells himself on strong narratives, gorgeous melodies and hellfire-preacher charisma, Skeleton Tree is ambient, introspective, motionless and obscure. I don’t know if I can recommend it as a thesis on grief, but it’s a visceral and unrelenting portrait of it.


Maxwell – blackSUMMERS’night

BlackSUMMERS’night is the follow up to Maxwell’s 2009 release BLACKsummers’night and the second instalment in the debonair soul singer’s quest to shield himself from prospective fans who want to get into his discography using non-case-sensitive search engines. BLACKsummers’night was, if you’ve not listened to it, a lovely little album: a stylish, charming blend of vocal chops, wit and energetic funk that eschewed the hazy grooves of D’Angelo and Erykah Badu in favour of a lighter touch and clocked it all in at a concise 35-ish minutes. BlackSUMMERS’night isn’t an equal successor, but it’s a worthy one all the same.

The album for me didn’t exactly put its best foot forwards. Although I’ll give some props to the rather interesting horn licks in “All The Ways That Love Can Feel” and “The Fall” (the first two tracks), the first problem I noticed was the fact that the vocals really weren’t tethered down enough by the instruments. It’s a bugbear I’ve run into before in the careers of otherwise very good soul artists (Bilal and Miguel both fell somewhat afoul of this last year); Maxwell’s voice is as powerful and dynamic as anyone’s, but a joyride doesn’t become any more sensible because it’s being done in a Ferrari. The first three tracks all sport fidgety, energetic drumlines and instrumental sections that are all flourish and no groove, and hearing Maxwell’s voice loop-de-loop over the top of it feels uncontrolled and incoherent.

But when the album manages to get the instruments and the vocals working in tandem – and it does; by “Lake by the Ocean” it seems to have gotten a solid grasp of doing that – it absolutely shines. “Lake by The Ocean” by itself is almost worth recommending the entire album for: a seductive, intelligent piece that foregrounds synthesizers with pianos and acoustic guitar to spectacular effect, and sports a subtly but supremely hooky chorus to boot. “Hostage”, in particular, exemplifies how important this kind of singer/instrument synergy is. The track begins with astral xylophones and a repetitive, pattering drumbeat, and builds to an explosive climax around four fifths in. Maxwell’s adoption of a harsher, rawer singing style feels worthy of the moment because it’s been built up in accordance with the song-writing around it. “Lost”, with its old fashioned bluesy lyrics and heavy, echoing pianos, becomes a real old school ballad and adds a touch of quiet reverence to the album’s final quarter.

To be honest, even leaving aside the synergy, the album ultimately lives and dies on whether or not the instruments are interesting enough to keep pace with the vocals. “Fingers Crossed” demonstrates this: although the drumline of the track is slightly too rickety and unpredictable to carry Maxwell’s singing, the whole thing succeeds on some masterful piano and horn work, and on its captivating outro segment, in which Maxwell’s singing fades to a chanted mutter while batteries of horns and synthesizers take flight.

Whereas BLACKsummers’night was confident – “Global warming ain’t got nothing on this chick” isn’t a lyric you sing unless you’re pretty assured you’re telling the story to someone who’s got time for your witticisms – blackSUMMERS’night is on the whole more confessional, and again, the album’s at its best when it embraces that. Whereas the more vibrant numbers- “Gods”, for example, and the opening tracks – seem to scramble to find an emotion to convey, the album’s softer and gentler tracks, which by the end of the album have pretty much entirely taken over the setlist, are sublime. It’s enjoyable how astral out the whole things tend to be; “Listen Hear” and “Of All Kind” feel like soul music’s answer to space rock. Indeed, given the album grows gradually more miasmic as it progresses, there’s a haunting feeling of “coming apart” to the whole affair; Maxwell’s seeming evaporation adds another layer of poignancy to his lyrics.

BlackSUMMERS’night is inconsistent enough that it couldn’t ever be anything more than a mixed bag, but it’s definitely a mixed bag with an emphasis on the positive. Importantly, although it’s definitely not as good as BLACKsummers’night, it isn’t just an inferior copy: it’s quieter, franker, less funky but more soulful, and represents just as much as its predecessor a step forwards by a deeply creative artist into new terrain. And sure, it’s not quite the terrain he’s at his best on, but it’s a good step all the same.

Concert Review – PJ Harvey at the Eden Project, 27th of June 2016

One wonders if PJ’s Spotify play count has gone up since the UK announced its departure from the EU. Even if PJ hadn’t hinted at her own stance on the matter – reciting “No Man Is An Island” at a gig earlier in the year – she’d still feel like a deeply relevant musician at this point. I mentioned in my Hope Six Demolition Project review that PJ, when she gets political, is more of a mourner than a revolutionary – more of an Oracle at Delphi than a Guardian Columnist, if you will – and that feels appropriate when you’re standing at the gates of another bloody recession ushered in by a referendum that can’t be undone. It’d feel appropriate even if “Goddamn Europeans/take me back to beautiful England/and the grey damp filthiness of ages” wasn’t the opening to one of her songs. So when I found out that she was playing at the Eden Project, the rapidly collapsing pound coins couldn’t exit my wallet fast enough.

It’s good to know that the slightly earthier tone of Hope Six compared to her previous albums hasn’t made her staging any less arcane. Harvey emerged on stage at the centre of a marching band, playing a doomy rendition of “Chain of Keys”, other members of which included two drummers, three guitarists and two saxophonists (plus Harvey herself – sax was her instrument of choice when she wasn’t singing). They were all dressed in popped-collar dark suits and waistcoats. She was dressed in a corset and black tunic, with heel length sleeves, standing in a pair of bizarrely curvaceous black high heels that looked almost like they were designed by Apple, and crowned with a tiara of black roses. There was something almost Neil Gaiman-esque about it: a B-movie’s interpretation of a Massachusetts witch, dancing like a puppet-show Lady Macbeth, having seemingly resurrected herself in a Thatcher-era executive party and hypnotized the live band into her service. It was everything I expected from Harvey and more. Even better, the showmanship seemed to have taken Chekhov’s Gun to heart. At the start of the evening, a roadie placed at the centre of stage a saxophone which was smaller than the ones on either side of it but gleamed ivory-white. And sure enough, at the climax of “The Ministry of Social Affairs” towards the end of the gig, as the band (and Harvey herself) backed away with their horns and snare drums, one saxophonist took the instrument, strode to the front, and Coltrane’d the house down.

Save the individual solos – which tended to be on the chaotic end – there wasn’t much by way of improvisation; this was mostly a straight reproduction of album songs. And you know, this is probably a pretty good time in PJ Harvey’s career to have done that. Hope Six, which contributed most of the evening’s setlist (every song on the album made an appearance at some point), was never the most subtle of Harvey’s albums, but it was definitely one of the most stentorian, and a good live declamation was exactly what it needed. “Medicinals” and “The Ministry of Social Affairs” were brought to visceral, violent life by the onslaught of saxophones and guitars; the more straightforward “The Wheel”, meanwhile, finally got a chance to be the anthem it always seemed to deserve to be. Indeed, while Hope Six can still feel fairly confident of a top ten albums slot this year, hearing the tracks live really demonstrated how much it would’ve benefitted from some rawer production – if Steve Albini had been/could have been consulted about giving Hope Six the same treatment he gave Rid of Me, it might have been one of the best albums in Harvey’s catalogue.

Mind you, Harvey and her band deserve kudos beyond merely having access to what has turned out to be a terrific suite of songs for live performance. On the band’s forays into her earlier catalogue, the performances were similarly stellar. Under a pair of lone spotlights, Harvey and one backing musician undertook the ambitious task of adapting “When Under Ether” for electric guitar, and managed to lose not one ectoplasm-vial of the song’s vital ghostliness. The stumbling time signatures of “When England Shake” came across with prog-metal tightness. I’m pretty sure “50 Foot Queenie” put me through puberty again.

The one significant criticism I’d make is the set list. The majority of the songs were from Hope Six, with a few from Let England Shake and a few from earlier albums scattered around. As great an album as Hope Six was, it might’ve been a good idea to prune a couple of its weaker tracks (“Dollar Dollar” maybe, or “River Anacostia”) so that we could get a bit more of a look at the back catalogue. I want to hear what this incarnation of her backing band would’ve done with “Kamakaze”, for example, or “Long Snake Moan.” And to be honest I’m not even wholly on board with the songs from her back catalogue she did pick. The title track from “To Bring You My Love” is a lovely doom-blues intro for an album, but as well performed as it was it’s far stolid for live performance as anything other than… well, an intro track. “The Glorious Land” was again well performed, but even in the five years since Let England Shake Harvey doesn’t seem to have learnt that playing “Regimental March” over your riff, however symbolic, is still a terrible idea when your riff is in a different key and a different time signature. At the end of the gig, the crowd screamed for more (as is custom) and Harvey and the band returned to the stage (as is custom) to perform “Near the Memorials to Vietnam and Lincoln.” Not a bad song, sure, but not a great encore choice. First, it involved an accordion, which hadn’t been used at any other point in the gig but had still been left on stage at the start, which seemed to deflate the cordial (and traditional) illusion that “no, really, we weren’t planning on doing an encore until you called.” Second, that would’ve been the time to hit us with a classic – “Sheela-na-gig” maybe.

Nonetheless, PJ Harvey delivered. She delivered as thoroughly and vigorously as I had ever expected to. If this incarnation of the band, playing songs in support of this album, swings by you in the near future, do not miss it.