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A confession: I’ve got the hots for a chick, and have had so for quite time.  Of course, she doesn’t have flesh and bones, at least not to me; she’s a voice, a music, and what an extraordinary voice she has, and what extraordinary music she makes.  And her most recent album: well, it’s been a long time since I’ve adored an album as much as this, how I’ve learnt every song, as in I’ve become to understand it all, it’s seeped into me, getting beneath my skin.  You know when you’re young and you listen to an album so often that you start to become sick of it?  So you wisen up and get into the habit of drip-feeding albums that you’re loving.  Or you love an album immediately only to find that it doesn’t hold its own ground.  Or you don’t like an album immediately, but soon find yourself playing it over and over, loving it intensely, obsessively, until it’s all-consuming.

PJ Harvey’s most recent album Let England Shake is the sort of album that makes me remember the great records from my deep, dark past – Faith by The Cure, London Calling by The Clash, The Queen is Dead by The Smiths – and I do own this latest Harvey opus on record, as in on vinyl, because that’s how I like to listen to the best albums that come my way.

Despite being an age-old though not uncritical PJ Harvey fan, I’ve come a little late to Let England Shake.  It was recorded over a five-week period at a church in Dorset UK in April and May 2010 (when I was bunking down in Launceston Tasmania, I realise rather deliciously) and released later that year.  In 2011 Harvey won the coveted Mercury Prize for this record, making her the only musician to have bagged the honour twice; she’d previously won it for Stories from the City, Stories from the Sea back in 2001.

What makes Harvey such an exciting, beguiling, and sometimes, let’s face it, frustrating singer-songwriter is her dogged refusal to repeat herself (Tim Winton should take notice, in more ways than one).  Her albums have covered such various terrain as riot-grrl grunge, folk, pop, electronica, sparse piano ballads (check out 2007’s White Chalk), and now she adds a dozen war songs to her, er, canon.

Harvey wrote Let England Shake over a two-and-a-half-year period, producing the lyrics first – she claims to be inspired by Harold Pinter and TS Elliot – before sitting down to set the lyrics to music.  Her mission, it’s clear, was to explore what it means to live in a country that’s at war.  However, this isn’t some table-thumping polemic; it’s intimate, it’s beautiful, it’s harsh, it’s haunting.  Her voice is higher than on previous records, and it’s complemented – more than appropriately – by the deep timbre of her long-time collaborators, John Parish, who Harvey has described as her music soul-mate, and Mick Harvey (no relation), who for many years has worked with Nick Cave.

Using instruments as diverse as autoharp, zither, piano, trombone and saxophone, as well as some cheeky and downright hilarious samples, Harvey has crafted an album that is as engaging as it is adventurous.  And it’s packed with tunes; it would almost be thigh-slapping good fun if it the subject matter wasn’t so serious.  Check out ‘The Last Living Rose’, the gut-wrenching ‘On Battleship Hill’ and ‘Written on the Forehead’ to experience the musical and emotional range of the album.

It’s true that PJ Harvey can be awkward company: I imagine that you’d have a delightful cup of tea with her, she’d smile, she’d talk sweetly but with brutal honesty, before she’d stand up, excuse herself, and go and play with her chooks or pot up some salvia.  And I haven’t always been faithful to her; in fact years have gone by when I’ve not had much to do with her.  But, despite the latest fixation on how ugly human beings can be to each other, how supremely violent for no real logical reason, we’re back together now.  And I feel that this time she’s with me for quite some time.  Even if she does a runner on me again, or I do a runner on her, I have no doubt that in twenty years time I’ll still be playing Let England Shake, and on vinyl, and loud, very very loud.

One day they'll get these things pocket-sized.

Sorry, I’m doing it again.  I wrote about record players last month but in the spirit of that great old saying “Everything in moderation except the things you love”, I must keep exploring this new element in my life – for three reasons.  Firstly, the cute little baby is now happily ensconced in my house.  Secondly, the process of returning to technology that by rights should have been extinct years ago has been surprisingly revealing.  Thirdly, I’m in love.

It’s such a humble object: all black, no brand name (I didn’t buy it from a supermarket, it’s just that minimalism is how modern turntable design is done), and it has only one button (on/off).  Even though I’ve had it for two weeks I still find myself checking it out.  Sometimes I wonder what it’s doing there: as soon as it was out of the box it gave the loungeroom a very 70s feeling; but in the right light it also looks like it’s flown in from outer-space and is nesting beneath the television.  Other times I just gaze at it longingly, lovingly, wantonly.

But it needed setting up.  That’s right, it wasn’t just a matter of plugging it in and bunging on a record – I actually had to piece it together.  And this is where it all became quite strange.  Turntable technology hasn’t progressed in the last twenty years; in fact, it’s regressed like nothing else on earth.  To change the playing speed you must adjust a ‘fan-belt’ (as described by He Who Loves 2008 Gadgetry Not 1978 Gadgetry).  To  get a deeper bass sound you adjust weights.  To improve clarity you tweak a thing at the back that looks like a little man fishing for carp.

If the truth be told, I had to get a man in.  He arrived with tools attached to his belt and then proceeded to spend an hour explaining how I’d put almost every component together incorrectly, which was why the first record I played – ‘Wuthering Heights’ by Kate Bush on single – sounded like I’d trodden on an al-foil covered cat.  When the man was finished, however, I poured myself a cheeky port and put on a record and let my hearing do the rest.  Yes, there’s the familiar crackling and popping, but once I’d readjusted my ears the sound was amazing – it’s very perky indeed.  The musicians are in the room: I can hear plectrums hitting guitar strings and bows drawing across cellos.

But perhaps the most extraordinary gift this little black contraption has given me is engagement.  There’s the whole cleaning-the-record thing for starters (in warm dishwater, say the audiophiles), and then you must carefully place the stylus down on the vinyl, but, as the arm is not automated these days so you have to lift it back up again once the record is finished, you really can’t put on an LP and then go clean the bathroom.  To get the most out of it, you have to stall your life for the music, you must stop and listen.  And in a world which seems to be fracturing at a horrific rate, stopping and listening to beautiful sounds, or melancholic or bone-rattling aggressive sounds, are good things, great things – fundamentals.

(First published in Panorama, Canberra Times, November 1 2008)

I’m going to do it, get the needle and slowly, carefully, put it where it needs to go.  Then I’ll stretch out and let it wash over me, through me, and enjoy the utter gloriousness of it.  After decades of abstinence, you see, I’m going to have a record player in my house again.  And I can’t wait, though I will have to wait because I have to scrape together the last few pennies.  But I’m already going through my small (and rather dusty) collection of LPs and singles, trying to decide which will be lucky enough to have First Spin status.

It could be New Order’s Substance, partly because it has ‘Blue Monday’ on it, which will sound great through the new speakers (you can’t buy a record player without getting new speakers), and partly because I can remember riding my bike up to the St Ives Shopping Village, which was my haunt for the first eighteen years of my life, and buying this double album, although it actually contains “12 x 12-inch a-sides”.  Back home, however, I discovered in one of the records an imprint of a sneaker, so I returned it to the store and was given a replacement.  But I’d learnt that at some stage in the manufacturing process, records must be pliable enough for a mark to be left when, perhaps, an overworked factory employee stumbles.  Vinyl indeed.

'The Queen is Dead' by The Smiths. Greatness.

Or it could be The Smiths’ The Queen is Dead.  The first time I heard this record, in 1986, my last year of school, I didn’t understand it one bit – my older brother’s best friend had just told me that if I was keen on music I must give The Smiths a listen.  But I thought the singer, whose lyrics referenced Wilde and Yeats, sounded like a morose yodeller and his lines ran counter to the music, the music being pleasant enough, in a jingly-jangly sort of way, but it simply wasn’t to my less-than-developed private-schoolboy taste.  Needless to say, two or three years later I realised that Morrissey sang all his words for me and me alone.  Even now, at the age of 39 and 51 weeks, I’m still a Smiths obsessive.

Or the first record could be ‘The Sun Always Shines on TV’ by A-ha or ‘Victims’ by Culture Club, both on 45.  Then again, maybe not.

It’s true that this is all about nostalgia – I even admitted as much when last weekend I nervously walked in to a hi-fi store and told them what I was looking for.  Yes, I’m having a sentimental yearning for the past. But what does ‘sentimental’ actually mean?  A romantic or nostalgic feeling; by emotion rather than reason.  Hang on, my decision to own a record player is entirely reasonable, and sensible, and logical; emotion has nothing to do with it, thank you very much.  Besides, even now, in 2008, some bands still put out music on LP, so this might not be about the past at all – it’s just about…options.

Whatever, if I am being nostalgic, I really don’t care.  It was Lou Reed who said ‘I don’t like nostalgia unless it’s mine’.  And this nostalgia is all mine, baby.  If only I was cool enough as a kid to own a Velvet Underground record.

(First published in Panorama, Canberra Times, October 4 2008)

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