Neon Bible

Neon_Bible

Album: Neon Bible

Artist: Arcade Fire

Released: March 5th, 2007

Highlights: Black Mirror, Intervention, Antichrist Television Blues, No Cars Go

“Neon Bible” is the second album released by Arcade Fire. And if there is a word that unites it with its predecessor, “Funeral”, it has got to be the adjective apocalyptic. As perhaps the most influential and recognized members of a movement that brought, to indie rock, many of the feel-good hippie vibes that had seemingly died with the sixties, it may surprise outsiders to notice there is so much doom and gloom in the material of the band. But perhaps taking a good look around and dreading the possibility the world is going down the drain soon is very much something to be expected out of a group of people who try to view reality through lenses that might be a bit too loaded with positivity for their own good. And perhaps as proof of that, “Neon Bible” packs more than enough despondency to intrigue skeptics and pessimists who are naturally repelled by the colorful peace, love, and hope ethos of a band like Arcade Fire.

The apocalypse of “Neon Bible”, however, is quite different from the one portrayed in “Funeral”. In their debut, affected by the loss of numerous relatives, Win Butler and his crew envisioned a dark world in which the adults were dead while the kids were left to fend off for themselves in the midst of a cold dystopia. And when not busy with fiction that hit quite close to home, the band approached the tales and hardships that inspired the disturbing images of its core suite, ultimately fearing that with nobody else left to protect them, the weight of responsibilities and of a reality full of lies would perhaps be more than what they could carry.

In spite of its look at a few worldly matters, “Funeral” was mostly a domestic affair: an album concerning the battles and pain that occur within the walls of a house or a neighborhood. “Neon Bible” climbs over those to get a more general glimpse at the horizon, and – to nobody’s surprise – what it finds is not exactly comforting. In fact, it actually makes it all seem even more miserable, since the world outside is not going to help any wounds heal; if anything, it will make the state of affairs even worse given that when domestic life is in disarray, the struggles away from home can become even bigger than they already are. Not accidentally, then, the monument to sorrow that “Neon Bible” builds feels bigger than the one constructed by “Funeral”: in the debut, it was a broken house; here, it is a Gothic cathedral of massive stature.

The fact “Neon Bible” brings forth images of grand religious architecture is not accidental. As the record’s name implies, religion is the central theme here. Yet, the subject is not approached in a very broad sense. Win Butler seems to have his eyes set on the power of televangelists; people he perceives as hypocritical and whose popularity may be a symptom of an illness that afflicts society. In a way, some might look at “Neon Bible” as a sequel of sorts to “Funeral”, one in which the abandoned and hopeless kids of the first album look for solace in the word of God as preached by television personalities. But, naturally, the work is a bit more global than that, since it seems to understand that absolutely everyone has the type mental weaknesses that those figureheads explore for their own gain.

The title “Neon Bible” is in itself a source of mockery and fear for the narrator. Alluding to the fiery and often exaggerated religious claims made by televangelists, who turn a scared book into entertainment business, he ridicules the constant threats that viewers are going to hell for relatively inconsequential sins; at the same time, at the back of his mind, there is this little concern that if what is being said is true, he and pretty much everybody else are doomed. As the album goes on, he analyzes the hypnotic mind-controlling power of television (“Black Mirror”); looks at people whose only solace in life comes from religion and desperately attempts to wake them up (“Intervention”); tries not to be manipulated by a world of propaganda (“Ocean of Noise”); goes biblical and uses a parable to talk about the inevitability of sin (“The Well and the Lighthouse”); dives into the power-hungry psyche of a televangelist and his exploration of his daughter for financial gain (“Antichrist Television Blues”); fights to defend the little parts of his life that are still free of control and consumerism (“Windowsill”); and searches for a way to escape (“Keep the Car Running” and “No Cars Go”).

“Neon Bible” is clearly an album at war with mass media, and it depicts that struggle with a huge sound. Truth be told, despite of its domestic nature, “Funeral” already felt pretty large, especially in its communal and anthemic choruses. But “Neon Bible” takes that grandeur to a new level. When the songs are intimate, they are drenched in thick and dark layers of synthesizers that threaten to drown listeners into the overwhelming despair and anxiety the characters feel when trying to remain in control whilst living in a world that wants to engulf everyone in its zombie-like rat race. Meanwhile, when they are explosive, “Neon Bible” shows it is the Arcade Fire album that best knows how to create bombast, betting on organs and on an almost omnipresent orchestra to generate soaring movements with enough power to make the walls of a concert house tremble. The result is an album that is sonically consistent in its Gothic darkness while also being pretty varied.

“Black Mirror” has steady instrumental patterns, soaked in a sinister hum, that perfectly replicate the hypnotic nature of television. “Keep the Car Running” uses a mandolin and a bouncy bass to propel an otherwise typical slice of catchy Arcade Fire alternative rock. Washed in a pipe organ and strings, “Intervention” is the best cut of the album; an epic of historical proportions that has the band going through the tune with the passion of people who are trying to save a loved one from being brain-washed by televangelists. “Ocean of Noise” musically replicates tides, swelling and deflating as it goes along, with the instruments dancing around as if aboard a ship that is being hit by tall waves. “The Well and the Lighthouse” recalls The Cure’s colorful pieces of pop rock: moved by a pronounced bass in the verses, the song eventually peaks when it is decorated with jangly guitars. “Antichrist Television Blues” is a rockabilly freight train, coming at listeners at a rising pace while it bounces on a notable bass line. Decorated by an accordion and strings, “No Cars Go” is essentially made to serve as a marvelous moment of catharsis in concerts. And “My Body Is a Cage” is a keyboard, percussion, and voice track that seems inspired by the darkest moments of Nine Inch Nails.

“Neon Bible” is the type of sophomore effort that had a lot to live up to. Loved by some and hated by others, “Funeral” is one of those rare works in rock history that truly deserves being labeled as seminal, since its spirit was the spark that ignited a whole movement. “Neon Bible” cannot claim the same credentials, but it is just as good: save for the dull “Back Wave / Bad Vibrations”, it has no weak tunes; in fact, the writing is so inspired that nearly all of its tracks are at least excellent. And in addition to showing one of the era’s best bands working at the peak of their powers, this is an album that does not tread water. Yes, it is still quite apocalyptic; it still has plenty of anthemic choruses; and it still holds thematic ambitions that materialize extremely well. But this is a totally different creature, and sitting beside the neighborhood of “Funeral”, the cathedral of “Neon Bible” is sure to forever stand as one of the grand monuments of rock music.

five

To Bring You My Love

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Album: To Bring You My Love

Artist: PJ Harvey

Released: February 25th, 1995

Highlights: To Bring You My Love, Meet Ze Monsta, Send His Love to Me, The Dancer

“To Bring You My Love” presents a combination of qualities that is, to say the least, very unlikely. On one hand, it is a record of intimacy, featuring a collection of songs that (with the exception of the ruthless banging of “Meet Ze Monsta” and “Long Snake Moan”) are quiet and subdued; as such, it is an album that forces listeners to lean in so they can enter its universe appropriately and grasp everything PJ Harvey is trying to say. At the same time, though, her third work is also positively fierce, and while it deals with feelings that usually indicate a sullen atmosphere, such as maddening love and death, the album turns the table on these topics; rather than being sucked down into defeat by them, it opts to stand tall in the midst of the misery, expose its suffering soul for the world to see, and bask in the courageous glory of the act. “To Bring You My Love” is, therefore, a triumph of displaying relentless passion in a restrained manner.

The keywords for that achievement are heart and performance. In her two previous albums, “Dry” and “Rid of Me”, PJ Harvey had already shown she had plenty of those. Her lyrics, entwined with blatantly stated emotions so powerful they sometimes spilled into threats or violence, had turned the indie rocker coming from the English countryside into a somewhat dark menacing figure in the minds of her audience. To further enhance and validate that impression, she and her band executed these tunes ferociously: the sound was raw, as if performed from within a dirty garage; the playing was loud as well as rough, concocting a peculiar mixture of blues with punk; and PJ Harvey interpreted her lyrics with the authenticity of someone who had lived through them, screaming in pain, shouting in anger, singing in defiance, or staring her target down in hatred when necessary.

It is not a surprise, then, that “To Bring You My Love” is a masterclass of performance. Considering the wild nature of its predecessors, however, the true shock here comes from how PJ Harvey has almost completely shifted gears when it comes to expressing herself. Instead of breaking into her lover’s house and screaming on his face while building a fabulous racket with her guitar, in “To Bring You My Love” she is taking a sneakier approach, luring listeners into the inner workings of her psyche and exposing – in a much calmer and sinister manner – what goes through the veins of her body. It is, essentially, the distinction between performing a revealing emotional monologue on a stage and whispering those same truths to a an individual that is inside her home.

With a lot of room for emotion and little space for either instrumental flourishes or ornamental touches, “Dry” and “Rid of Me” were basic, minimalistic, and raw. In another glorious turn of incongruence, given how different it is from those records, those characteristics are also valid for “To Bring You My Love”. However, needless to say, once again the record gets to them in a very distinctive way. As PJ Harvey’s break into the mainstream, the album’s production is much more full-fledged: the sound is clean, stripping nearly all punk and garage ethos from the music; the instrumentation is varied, as pianos, keyboards, strings, and light electronic treatments come into play; and all of these are combined to give the work a sleek luster and some carefully engineered atmospheres. Yet, even if for the first time accompanied by so much decoration, PJ Harvey’s inherent rawness is not drowned.

A good portion of that victory stems from the fact that, quite boldly and despite the extra treatment, many of the tunes are left in a very bare-bones instrumental state. The title track, in fact, may be the finest example of that approach, because even though an additional louder guitar punctually emerges and a few haunting keyboard lines are occasionally played, the song – which goes over the five-minute mark – is mostly carried by PJ Harvey’s voice and her electric guitar, as she delicately picks a quiet (yet mighty and threatening) blues-inspired riff. Those who have listened to “Dry” and “Rid of Me” may expect, like in many instances from those albums, the tune to explode into a furious thunderstorm at any moment as tension slowly builds when the other two instruments come and go as well as when the singer puts an extra force behind her hypnotizing words, but PJ Harvey never attacks, intimately declaring – instead – the insane sinful lengths through which she would go to be with her lover, and leaving the dark clouds to just loom in the distance ominously.

Various other tunes follow suit. “Working for the Man” is even more naked, as despite the nigh constant presence of a very light jangly guitar, its leading instruments are the steady drums, the simple but catchy bass line, and PJ Harvey’s whispers about picking up a whole lot of lovers while driving around. “C’mon Billy” is essentially made up of an acoustic guitar and voice, and as she sings from the point of view of a woman who tries to convince the father of her child to meet their kid with the intent of seeing the man again, she does so with the intensity of someone who is playing a vicious rock song. “Send His Love To Me” is another acoustic track, but one that has some percussion and a spectacular combination of strings with an organ. “Teclo” features nothing but a voice and electric guitar duo that slowly builds up emotion as PJ Harvey states the death of her lover will also be her end. “Down By The Water”, in which a woman drowns her infant daughter, has tasteful and eventual orchestral touches, but is guided by a nasty noisy organ, bass, and drums. “I Think I’m a Mother” is a stripped-down blues number drenched in effects. And “The Dancer” builds an epic ballad with an organ and watery guitars.

From a cynical perspective, these are tunes that should not click. They are mostly long; they are not very dynamic; most of them have no pronounced choruses; and their structures are not very well-defined. However, not only do they work, but they are utterly gripping. PJ Harvey, drinking from the bluesmen of old, throws a load of religious references into her songs, as if only supernatural forces – be those of God, Jesus, or Satan – could understand her woes or help her get rid of them. Meanwhile, channeling one of her idols, Howlin’ Wolf, she pours herself into these tracks madly, whether it is to shape dark atmospheres (“I Think I’m a Mother”), emerge like a threatening giant of immeasurable force (“To Bring You My Love”), or throw herself down in utter despair in search of a higher power that can save her (“Send His Love to Me”). In that context, the basic but impossibly catchy instrumentals are accompanying music for her performance, and her feelings are delivered via uniformly excellent melodic work that will subtly sneak up on listeners.

“To Bring You My Love” is then an album of clashing values. It is intimate, but ferocious. It is sleek, but raw. It is straightforward in instrumentation, but unbelievably involving. It is basic, but sonically diverse. It is melodically subtle, but inevitably catchy. And, ultimately, it is one of those rare breakthrough albums that package the artist for the mainstream without compromising their essence. Working alongside Flood and John Parish as a producer, PJ Harvey abandons her garage beginnings to find a sound that is bare-bones, unique, and challenging, but also approachable. In its rawness, it stays true to her early music. In its simplicity, it allows her to keep on leading the way with her unfiltered emotions. And as it supports one encounter between inventiveness and spotless songwriting, it produces one of the rock’s masterpieces.

five

New Adventures In Hi-Fi

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Album: New Adventures in Hi-Fi

Artist: R.E.M.

Released: September 9th, 1996

Highlights: New Test Leper, E-Bow the Letter, Leave, Bittersweet Me, Electrolite

As the 1980s became the 1990s, R.E.M. concluded its transition from an independent group that toiled away in a small label to global superstars that would go on to sign what was, by then, the largest contract in the industry’s history. However, true to their commitment to musical craft, the band continued to act in their own way. Case in point, despite ranking as gargantuan commercial successes, 1991’s “Out of Time” and 1992’s “Automatic for the People” were not backed up by highly-anticipated global tours, events that would have certainly caused the records to sell even more copies than they originally did and the vaults at Warner Bros. to receive obscene amounts of money.

When 1994 came around, though, and the band had at its disposal the glittery and delightfully decadent set of rocking tracks from “Monster”, which were far better suited for large arenas than the acoustic introspectiveness of its predecessors, R.E.M. felt it was time to hit the road for the first time in six years. Inspired by one of their greatest musical idols, Neil Young, who recorded a full album of original material (“Time Fades Away”) amidst one of the biggest tours of his life, the band decided to do the same, and the result of that experiment in creativity would come out in 1996 under the title of “New Adventures in Hi-Fi”.

In common, “Time Fades Away” and “New Adventures in Hi-Fi” share the fact that the respective series of shows that birthed them were filled with trouble. For while Neil Young and his crew spent their nights emotionally wrecked and consumed by all sorts of illegal substances, R.E.M. had to deal with plenty of medical emergencies, which culminated with drummer Bill Berry having a life-threatening aneurysm during a concert in Switzerland. In approach, though, the albums are greatly different, as “Time Fades Away” was put to tape as new songs were haphazardly performed in front of an audience that did not want to hear them, whereas “New Adventures in Hi-Fi” not only lacks drunk debauchery, but is also a mixture of tracks recorded during shows, in soundchecks, in studios, and even a little instrumental piece put together inside a dressing room.

In a sense, “New Adventures in Hi-Fi” was not the first time R.E.M. took a shot at making the so-called road album; after all, their sophomore full-length work, 1984’s “Reckoning”, had been written on the road and, thanks to the emotional effects of the band’s inaugural long tour, displayed lyrics centered around traveling, distance, and homesickness. But the two efforts could not possibly be more distinct, because besides obviously capturing the group at very disparate points in their career, the influence that constant motion has on the albums is simply not the same. Surely, with a handful of tracks (not to mention a cover) that nod to the concept and consequences of movement, there are some moments when “New Adventures in Hi-Fi” overlaps with aspects of “Reckoning”; but where the latter is a slick, controlled, and focused product of the studio, the former is a sprawling package: a collection of disparate photographs that have an interesting lack of unity due to how the subject they portray is always on the move.

Clocking in at sixty-five minutes, “New Adventures in Hi-Fi” is the longest R.E.M. album. Although that size is more a consequence of the length of the tunes (with nearly all of them going over the four-minute mark) than of the amount of tracks the disk contains (fourteen), the band makes use of that space to shoot at a surprisingly vast number of directions; and much to the joy of fans who admire the group’s ability to change their sound and to the credit of Berry, Buck, Mills, and Stipe, very little of “New Adventures in Hi-Fi” can be tied to what R.E.M. did before it. There are echoes of “Monster” in how the record often chooses to simply rock out, but rather than showcasing the glam aura of their 1994 work, these instances have a large open sound that is clearly the outcome of the arena environment in which the tunes were gestated. And there are tinges of accessible pop rock, but they are twisted by unusual length, abrasive arrangements, and raw production.

“New Adventures in Hi-Fi”, therefore, erodes a lot of the commercial value the band’s music slowly gained during the period between 1986 and 1992. The prime example of that turn is leading single “E-Bow the Letter”: featuring Michael Stipe emotionally reciting a cryptic text with considerations on love, fame, and distance while the band plays a haunting march and Patti Smith shows up to deliver a heart-wrenching refrain, the piece is frequently pointed out as commercial suicide and as the main culprit behind the album’s relatively low sales, which were especially disappointing in the United States. Yet, in spite of its blatant lack of marketable traits, “E-Bow the Letter” is absolutely stunning, and it is in that fine balance between impressive quality and absent financial viability that much of “New Adventures in Hi-Fi” exists, even if it does contain a couple of immediate hits, like “Bittersweet Me” and its catchy flirtation with the band’s jangly past, the folky match-up of piano-and-banjo seen in “Electrolite”, and the transformation of a Nirvana-like riff into the backbone of a rowdy alternative rock song executed in “So Fast, So Numb”.

“How the West Was Won and Where It Got Us” carries a beautiful chorus, but its alluring sparse, mysterious, and subdued verses are more like the R.E.M. of “Murmur” than the one that signed to Warner Bros. “The Wake-Up Bomb” is an utterly explosive thrill, but similarly to other rockers of the album, such as “Undertow” and “Binky the Doormat”, its wide sound clearly indicates it was recorded live. “New Test Leper” is a flawless piece of alternative country, but its marvelous lyrics – focused on a talk show guest that is ostracized by both host and audience – do not exactly have mass appeal. “Leave” is dark, epic, noisy, and has Stipe and Buck simultaneously landing on a great melody and on fantastic guitar hooks; but the fact it is one of the best tunes the band has ever recorded ends up somewhat obscured by its seven-minute length, the long acoustic instrumental segment that opens it, and an urgent buzzing siren that constantly stays on the background. “Departure” has a marvelous poppy edge, but it is a blistering and fast attack of vocals and guitar. “Be Mine” is an electric ballad that could easily be a hit, but it is purposely stretched. And “Low Desert” is great, but it achieves that position via a sweaty, heavy, and tense slow-tempo dirge.

Even through their very successful streak of “Out of Time” and “Automatic for the People”, R.E.M. never truly stopped being guided exclusively by their desires, since those albums reached notable sales more by accident than by design. “New Adventures in Hi-Fi” is, therefore, not too different from its popular siblings; still, it drives home that point far more obviously, as – in its case – artistic freedom clearly works against commercial value; a turn that certainly did not please many folks at Warner Bros. and fans that jumped aboard the train due to universal hits like “Losing My Religion” and “Everybody Hurts”. Regardless of such nature, “New Adventures in Hi-Fi” is completely masterful, be it for its stylistic range, its ability to blatantly broadcast the fact it was done while the band was on the road, or the sheer quality of its tracks. As such, although its musical flexibility can cause some of its songs to have varying effects on different people, the impressive amount of undeniable hidden gems it contains is rare enough to make it qualify as one of the best works of the decade and one of R.E.M.’s finest moments.

Tonight’s the Night

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Album: Tonight’s the Night

Artist: Neil Young

Released: June 20th, 1975

Highlights: Tonight’s the Night, Roll Another Number (For the Road), Albuquerque, Tired Eyes

Like it happened with “On the Beach”, its predecessor, the title of “Tonight’s the Night” can be awfully deceiving. While the first record was given a name that brings ideas of a relaxing paradise to mind, only to then reveal itself to be an album built on bitterness, anger, and lonesome contemplation; the second was dubbed with an expression that electrifies the brain with positive expectations and youthful excitement, almost making the neurons prepare themselves for impending hours where limits are few and possibilities are many. What lies below that surface, though, is the depiction of – quite possibly – the darkest and most depressing moment of a career that has lasted for more than fifty years, as the proclamation of the sentence that names it was spurred not by thrill, but by the kick in the gut that one receives when discovering someone close to them has passed away. And in the case of Neil Young, that crushing sensation came twice in a very short interval.

First, the singer-songwriter went through the horror of discovering his friend, the talented guitarist Danny Whitten, had overdosed on alcohol and medication in the evening of the very same day he was dismissed by Young from an upcoming tour due to his inability to keep up with the rehearsals. About six months later, and serving as the subject of the title track, a telephone call let him know one of his roadies, named Bruce Berry, had met the same fate via a combination of heroin and cocaine. The human tragedies that lie within drug-inflicted problems were not by then unfamiliar to Young, who in 1972 had already addressed the topic in the classic tune “The Needle and the Damage Done”, a track inspired by how he saw strangers, those around him, and even himself lose a bit of their talent and humanity to those substances. But the deaths of Whitten and Berry appeared to be some sort of tipping point for Young, a juncture when the pile of catastrophes grew so big that it broke him.

It is out of that wreck that “Tonight’s the Night” emerges. The title works as a reference to the nights when he was told about those deaths; the nights when friends were lost; families were shattered; tears were shed; and eternal scars were created. And even though it is impossible to know for sure what Young felt on those days, he does a pretty remarkable job in conveying it through music, for as the opening track silently announces that tonight is the night when tragedy is about to arrive via a phone call, listeners are taken through an emotional journey that holds no bright colors or points of relief, as the album navigates a spectrum dominated by sorrowful shades of white, black, and gray.

As far as records concerned with sadness go, though, “Tonight’s the Night” is somewhat strange. For although it certainly works as a funeral of sorts, where its attendees are so destroyed by grief they can barely speak, there is an unusual celebratory vibe that permeates it. Part of it has to be attributed to the raw and honest way in which the album was recorded, as throughout its course it becomes clear that besides committing most of the tunes to tape while so heavily intoxicated that all of the tracks threaten to fall apart, Young, his band-mates, and the work’s producers opted to use a lot of first takes – in all their spontaneous erratic glory – in the construction of the album. As such, “Tonight’s the Night” is immaculate in how it takes its audience to a room where musicians that chose to drown the sorrow of their unbearable losses in drugs and alcohol – the very same substances that killed their friends – gather around a microphone to play for the souls of the departed.

It is a smoky, drug-addled, and real musical celebration that is part burial and part seance, and amidst flubbed notes, clumsy harmonies, mistimed entries, and blundered lyrics, raw human misery comes through. “Tonight’s the Night”, however, is not just a work of bold atmospheric greatness, it is also a masterclass in songwriting, and it is in the combination of those elements that it shows its qualifications to rank as a rock and roll landmark. Presented here, in reckless abandon that is too depressed and drugged to get up from the chair on which it is sitting, are numerous staples of the Neil Young repertoire, including ballads of uncanny beauty, hard rock numbers whose guitars are played from the gut rather than from the heart, cuts of charming folk simplicity, and tasteful country infusions, all underlined by a piano-rock approach that gives the album its central musical personality, and in each of those categories, the harvested crops of “Tonight’s the Night” come either on top of the rest of his rich output or quite close to the summit.

The two versions of “Tonight’s the Night”, which open and close the album, are visceral, tense, bare-bones, and threatening. “Speakin’ Out” is piano-based blues at its loosest state. “World on a String” is a short, fast, and catchy slice of riff-focused hard rock. “Borrowed Tune”, which employs a slowed-down version of the melody from The Rolling Stones’ “Lady Jane”, shows Young at his frailest, as he confesses he has ripped Jagger and Richards off because he is too wasted to write his own tune. “Mellow My Mind” is so soft, tipsy, and beautiful one is inclined to give Young the relief he asks for. “Roll Another Number (For the Road)” has stunning harmonies sung by vocalists that are too stoned to get them right. “Albuquerque” stars a pedal steel guitar that tugs at the heart and is, by itself, enough justification to place Ben Keith as the instrument’s greatest and most tasteful player ever. “New Mama” is such a fragile combination of voices and acoustic guitar that it feels like it will break at any moment. “Lookout Joe” is a clumsy and energetic explosion of distortion. And “Tired Eyes”, which alternates an almost narrated verse with a drunk chorus of gorgeous melody and cathartic sorrow, is absolutely gripping in its sadness.

Most haunting and moving of all, though, is “Come on Baby Let’s Go Downtown”. Quietly stuck in the album’s first side, it sticks like a sore thumb when compared to the rest of the tracks not just due to fact it is a live recording, but also because of how it carries a purely happy energy that has no place in a work like “Tonight’s the Night”. Its inclusion in the album, however, is more than justified once one realizes that the person who sings it, plays its lead guitar line, and signs it alongside Young is none other than Danny Whitten himself, in all of the beautiful and inescapable glory that he had before an overdose ended his short life.

More than a nod to his departed friend or even proof that the stoned musical seance that is “Tonight’s the Night” was so well-conducted that the spirits of the dead did come out of their graves, it serves as a poignant warning on how substance abuse has the capacity to corrode lives little by little until they simply cease to be; and that the overwhelming sadness which lingers on in the hearts of those who stay behind – one that is accurately documented in the other tracks of the album – has a weight that is equivalent to the beauty of that soul and the capacity that it displayed for touching the lives of those around it. And in spontaneously exploring, via fantastic music, these two sides of death, the one that is snuffed out and the one that desperately tries to find the strength carry on, “Tonight’s the Night” acquires the magnitude of an all-time great artistic achievement, and also of a brutally vivid depiction of life at its roughest emotional edges.

Hejira

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Album: Hejira

Artist: Joni Mitchell

Released: November 22nd, 1976

Highlights: Coyote, Amelia, Hejira, Song for Sharon, Refuge of the Roads

During a very short period of time between 1975 and 1976, Joni Mitchell took a total of three road trips across the United States. In the first, she was part of the festive gypsy-like caravan that was Bob Dylan’s Rolling Thunder Revue. In the second, she led her own tour for the promotion of “The Hissing of Summer Lawns”, which would be cut short due to internal strife in her band. And in the third and final leg of her adventure, the folk singer – going from coast to coast – crossed the country twice, moving from Los Angeles to Maine in the company of a few friends and then driving all the way back to California alone through Florida and the Gulf of Mexico.

With all the feelings, meetings, separations, little celebrations, occasions of lonely contemplation, and experiences that are so intricately connected to the act of stepping on the road, it is only to be expected that a sensitive and observant artist of the caliber of Mitchell would use those remarkable moments as the raw material of her ultimate craft: songs. And in that sense, “Hejira”, the album she recorded shortly after those trips, confirms the forecast, for it reads very much like a travelogue, as its nine tunes serve as brief windows into one or more key instants that marked not only her journey, but her wandering spirit as well.

Albums for or about road trips were not exactly new in 1976, and they have appeared in such abundance both before and after that year that they could easily constitute a genre of their own. However, in addition to the notable quality of its cuts, which exhibit one of history’s greatest songwriters at the peak of her powers, there is a softness and delicacy to the soul of “Hejira” that set it apart from the crowd. Surely, while Joni chronicles her exploits, the mundane friction between rubber and asphalt is vividly present, and physical distances, human longing, and earthly matters form a considerable part of the record’s contents. Nevertheless, the road in “Hejira” is also spiritual, working like a standalone realm isolated from daily stress that allows those who give themselves to its endlessness to escape worries, confront inner demons, acquire knowledge, and live episodes that can be safely left behind in the black-and-white infinity of the roads.

The credit for that thematic achievement has to be shared between many parts. It can be given to the unparalleled craftsmanship Joni has regarding putting words together. It can be attributed to her flawless angelic voice. And it can be linked to a singing style that alternates playfulness, honesty, vulnerability, and thoughtfulness. Above it all, though, it has to be laid at the feet of her production work, because “Hejira” sounds absolutely aural, as if all of its parts were gliding in the very thin line that separates what is real from what is spiritual. Its guitar work, be it electric or acoustic, is pure yet pervasive, feeling strong but threatening to elude one’s touch if they try to capture it; its bass lines are prominent, especially when handled by the legendary Jaco Pastorius, who solos tastefully over Joni’s steady strums; and all other instruments delicately float around those two central pieces.

That transcendent soundscape carried by “Hejira” gives muscle to music that finds balance between refinement and accessibility. In Joni Mitchell’s career arch, the album stands right at the point that separates her initial run of records centered on plain folk and flowery pop from the wild experiments in jazz she would later take on; as such, even if it does carry, to an even larger degree, the stylistic and structural sophistication that began to appear in its two predecessors (“Court and Spark” and “The Hissing of Summer Lawns”), “Hejira” still clicks as a universally appealing piece.

There are, of course, punctual challenges to be found along the way, and they mainly arise from the stronger leaning towards jazz presented by “Hejira”. The songs are mostly long, with the two shortest of the bunch clocking in at four minutes. Moreover, all of them lack a chorus, either relying on single sentences that serve as hooks or just being formed by lengthy sequences of verses that are propelled by cyclical instrumentation. Consequently, their flexibility and the fuel that keeps them engaging throughout their duration come, instead, in the minor instrumental and arrangement variations that occur every once in a while; in Mitchell’s signature knack for twisting melodic lines as she sees fit; and in the lyrics. And as far as that last particular item goes, “Hejira” is an inexhaustible trove of treasures, treading both on specific episodes and philosophical contemplations.

“Coyote” addresses, with fondness, the separation from a former lover who also happened to be a womanizer. “Amelia” sees the singer talking and comparing herself to lost aviator Amelia Earhart; feeling comfortable with their mutual position as strong independent women who undertook – each for their own reasons – lonely journeys, Mitchell opens up about subjects that trouble her. “Furry Sings the Blues” recalls Joni’s encounter with blues legend Furry Lewis in a poorly kept Beale Street. “A Strange Boy” narrates an affair she had with a man in his thirties who still lived with his parents. “Hejira” covers the reasons why Mitchell broke up with her boyfriend and drummer during the tour supporting “The Hissing of Summer Lawns”. “Song for Sharon”, in ten magnificent verses, is a letter to a friend, and in it Joni approaches the subject of marriage: a dream that she has nurtured since childhood but that has always eluded her. “Black Crow” explores four ways in which she is a whole lot like the titular bird. And “Blue Motel Room” gives listeners a glimpse into one of the many lonesome nights Mitchell had while on the road, as she contemplates the empty room around her while longing for a distant lover.

In that context, the stunning closer “Refuge of the Roads” is the perfect final chapter to a flawless travelogue. Encompassing multiple meetings she had during her trip, Joni Mitchell concludes her portrait of the roads that cross the United States – or any other country, for that matter – as sacred spaces where remarkable human experiences, be of the bitter or of the sweet kind, take place. As she travels through thoughts, smiles, tears, and the warm embrace of those she cares about, though, Mitchell does not lose sight of how her journey – regardless of the emotional weight it may contain – is ultimately an insignificant one amidst the immensity of the highways, of the country, of the world, and of life itself.

And as the bass of Jaco Pastorius keeps on ringing as “Hejira” comes to a close, listeners are reminded that the roads Mitchell – and many others – traveled by are still out there, and that as the record plays, the encounters and contemplations that happen in them are, in a regenerated state, still unfolding at that very minute. Because, sure, the roads seem endless; however, they do hold a final destination for everyone, and it is only thanks to the cyclical ways of the universe that the stories that have them as a scenario repeat themselves infinitely with slightly altered details. And for as long as they occur, “Hejira” will be their spiritual soundtrack.

Quadrophenia

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Album: Quadrophenia

Artist: The Who

Released: October 26th, 1973

Highlights: The Real Me, I’m One, 5:15, Sea and Sand, Love Reign o’er Me

The first half of The Who’s career, which also happens to be – by far – the band’s creative peak, can be perceived as a display of how Pete Townshend’s ambitions as a composer progressively grew as the years went by. Starting with a basic album that was nothing more than an excellent collection of songs (“My Generation”), the group would go on to produce a record that contained their first multi-phased track focused on storytelling (“A Quick One”), a fully conceptual work (“The Who Sell Out”), a massive rock opera (“Tommy”), and a musical project that was so grand in scope (“Lifehouse”) that it ended up never truly materializing, with some of its spare parts being used to put together one of the most inescapable staples of classic rock (“Who’s Next”).

In that timeless run of ever expanding pretension, “Quadrophenia” was the next step, and considering that never again would Townshend and The Who aim for operatic grounds, the effort also qualifies as a final chapter of sorts. Rather than closing an epic saga on a sour note, though, “Quadrophenia” lets the band move forward onto simpler grounds with a loud bang, not just neatly summarizing the traits that made the group so special in the first place, but also emerging like the grand culmination of a cycle, consequently allowing Townshend to walk away from the conceptual realm not like a loser, but like a man who knew he had achieved the summit of the format.

As the band’s second rock opera, “Quadrophenia” naturally draws comparisons to “Tommy”; a parallel that would be daunting to just about any other composer, but that to Townshend simply means he is going against a slightly younger version of himself. And that difference in age and creative experience causes “Quadrophenia” to feel like a piece that is more fully formed. Part of the credit for that condition can be attributed to its theme. Where “Tommy” was a somewhat absurd tale that tracked the journey of a deaf, dumb, and blind boy through encounters with doctors, abusive uncles, prostitutes, drugs, and pinball machines until he becomes a public sensation and cult leader, “Quadrophenia” is far more grounded.

The album tells the story of Jimmy, a young member of the mod subculture who struggles to find his true identity (“The Real Me”, “I’m One”, and “Is It In My Head?”) in the midst of his working-class background, the pressure to fit in with his peers (“Cut My Hair”), his relationship with his parents (“Sea and Sand”), the scarce job opportunities he encounters (“The Dirty Jobs”), the disappointments he has with those he admires (“The Punk and the Godfather” and “Bell Boy”), and the general nonsense society throws his way (“I’ve Had Enough”). It is certainly an image that Townshend saw not only when he looked into the mirror, but also when he gazed at his fans, a fact that is highlighted by how Jimmy is reportedly a combination of the traits the guitar player saw in some followers of the band that he knew personally. Due to that, in its mixture of disillusionment, anger, and personal troubles, as Jimmy tries to find his true self in the four split personalities that the record highlights (hence the play on schizophrenia present in its title), “Quadrophenia” ends up being much easier to relate to.

The other reason why “Quadrophenia” emerges as a more consistent work is musical. As it covers its plot, sometimes quite directly and occasionally through more tortuous paths, it does so via seventeen songs that uniformly stay away from ranking as filler merely intended to advance the story. As the unwritten rules of rock operas seem to dictate, the album does contain a cut – its opener – that is an amalgamation of moody sound effects; likewise, it has two long instrumental suites (“Quadrophenia” and “The Rock”) that – in their case, brilliantly – combine the musical hooks and elements that appear throughout the record in unified compositions.

All of the remaining tracks, however, are pretty much what The Who fans expect from the band: rocking and melodically solid tunes, alternating between those that have dramatic breaks ideal for theatrical presentations and those that go straight for the jaw. All the while, the individual members of the band execute the performances of a lifetime. Daltrey sings with his usual force, but there is an extra aura of conviction in the way he delivers Townshend’s lyrics, and it is hard to find – in the entirely of the band’s catalog – a vocal with as much raw emotion as the one he pulls off for “Love, Reign o’er Me”. The de facto solo players of the group, drummer Keith Moon and bassist John Entwistle, run as wild as ever, with the former putting vicious beats, fills, and rolls in unexpected places with such an astounding frequency that the album lacks any sort of steady rhythmic work during all of its eighty minutes; and the latter playing bass lines that frantically cut through the songs regardless of the other instruments, as seen in the historical show he puts on during “The Real Me”.

In the middle of that rhythmic chaos, Townshend is the anchor, putting on a clinic of his signature base guitar, as he displays his unique ability to combine short bouncy licks and equally brief riffs with moments of silence that leave listeners wondering when the next punch will come in. In a way, that is the description of The Who by the numbers, but in “Quadrophenia” that recipe powers both an especially elevated degree of thematic cohesion and rock songwriting of the first order, showcasing a level of consistency that in the band’s discography is only seen in “The Who Sell Out” and “Who’s Next”.

The album, however, upgrades that traditional instrumental framework with two elements that in “Quadrophenia” appear more prominently than in any other release by the group: synthesizers and a brass section. As proof of Townshend’s great taste in production and arrangements, though, these two assets never overpower The Who’s brand of rock and roll, serving – instead – to make it lusher and give it a grand progressive edge, in the case of the synths, which greatly boost the instrumental tracks and “Love, Reign o’er Me”; and to add more power to their already explosive nature, in the case of the horns, which turn the chorus of “Doctor Jimmy” and the entirety of “5:15” into barn burners. It is a slick and layered sound that gives “Quadrophenia” a musical identity and solidifies it as The Who’s most inspired work, allowing Townshend to get to the top of his operatic ambitions and give a worthy conclusion to a stunning creative cycle.

Surfer Rosa

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Album: Surfer Rosa

Artist: Pixies

Released: March 21st, 1988

Highlights: Bone Machine, Break My Body, Where Is My Mind?, River Euphrates

Wild, violent, aggressive, raw, energetic, and in-your-face. To some extent, those adjectives have been used throughout music history to describe an enormous amount of tracks and albums: from those produced by all bands associated with the punk rock movement to the ones birthed by the endless groups that fall into the equally vast sub-genres of metal. It is arguable, however, that even if those records do have a claim to sporting such qualifications, the Pixies’ debut, “Surfer Rosa”, makes – during slightly over thirty minutes – the point that, more than being worthy of receiving those labels, it absolutely owns them.

“Surfer Rosa” is so bare-bones in sound and instrumentation it makes the no-frills rock that blasts from garages around the world look like the work of a progressive band; it is so uncompromising that it makes the song structures from a Ramones LP seem like they are part of a pompous rock opera; and it is written and performed with such an absurd bend towards primal instincts it makes the raw power of The Stooges appear too calculated in comparison. “Surfer Rosa” screams, attacks, pounds, and finds a way to alternate moments of jarring psychopathy with intermissions of tongue-in-cheek fun.

Throughout the album, Black Francis – the group’s singer and songwriter – seems to be constantly challenging the notion of what can pass for a song. Out of the thirteen tracks, five do not even reach the two-minute mark, and just three of them safely climb above three minutes. But it is not just a matter of brevity; it is often a question of structure.

On “Something Against You”, with a distorted voice that seems to indicate some murderous intent, he repeats the title madly while the band blasts a spiral of noise; “Tony’s Theme”, about a child who imagines himself as a superhero who chases villains on his bike, is appropriately a whole lot like a personal anthem a toddler would come up with in a few minutes; “Oh My Golly” is so simple it comes off like the type of throwaway tune that would be used by the band to warm up in the studio or on stage before actually performing, only it has somehow made it into the album; and “I’m Amazed”, which opens with hilarious playful studio banter between Francis and bassist Kim Deal, has more dialogue than lyrics. As such, “Surfer Rosa” could have easily been the target of accusations of laziness or lack of material, especially given it was the band’s full-length debut. Yet, through some sort of trickery, the Pixies make it work.

As one of the first production jobs of the now legendary Steve Albini, and the reason he would go on to be employed by various other artists, “Surfer Rosa” has a raw purity that explains his fame as a producer who is really more of a recorder. With compulsively precise microphone placement and by having the group perform live in the studio as much as possible, Albini extracts the immaculate essence of a four-piece rock band. David Lovering’s drums sound magnificent, and it is arguable the instrument has never been recorded so flawlessly; and given that, alongside Kim Deal’s bass, they are the leading thread of most of the songs, their prominent position in the mix does wonders to the tracks’ inherent violence.

Meanwhile, the guitars of Santiago and Francis are strident and vicious. On “River Euphrates”, they sound like they could cut through steel; on the quiet and monotonic “Cactus”, they are subdued and threatening; and on the opener, “Bone Machine”, whenever they explode just as Francis lets out a glorious scream, they seem ready to kill. Consequently, the music of “Surfer Rosa” oozes brutality, sometimes precariously chained and sometimes dangerously loose, but it somehow makes its savagery appealing.

Francis sings about a man who finds pleasure and jealousy in watching his girlfriend be unfaithful to him and who appears to be ready to end it all quite violently (“Bone Machine”), a family whose incestuous behavior has led to deformed offspring (“Broken Face”), a well-endowed black man (“Gigantic”), and an inmate who want his lover to send him a bloodied and sweaty piece of underwear to prove she is still alive (“Cactus”). Yet, despite the potentially appalling subjects, the Pixies never lose sight of the poppy hooks, and that is ultimately what makes “Surfer Rosa”, for it exists on such thin line between the disturbing and the sugary that it is shocking it is able to stand and support itself on it.

All of its tunes are as catchy as they are violent, and for every sick scream, awkwardly sung verse, and transgressive sentence, there is a weird melodic line from which it is impossible to escape. That odd balance is prevalent on “Surfer Rosa”, be it in how Kim Deal’s sweet and almost naive backing vocals act as a soothing counterpoint to Francis’s insanity or in how it alternates sheer abrasiveness with a couple of tracks of pure pop rock bliss (“Gigantic” and “Where Is My Mind?”). “Surfer Rosa” is such an uncanny working mixture of pieces that are thorny and accessible that its existence is sort of a musical miracle, and just like it successfully claims as its property the adjectives wild, violent, aggressive, raw, energetic, and in-your-face, it positions itself as the progenitor of all alternative rock that is artistically independent, challenging, and immensely enjoyable.

Horses

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Album: Horses

Artist: Patti Smith

Released: December 13th, 1975

Highlights: Gloria, Redondo Beach, Free Money, Land

As the 70s reached their midway point, the music scene that had been incubating inside New York City’s legendary club CBGB started to claw its way out of the confines of the East Village. Out of a class that included numerous acts that would write their names in music history, such as Television, Blondie, the Talking Heads, and the Ramones, Patti Smith was the first one to have a record published. Due to its pioneering nature, and given it was the primary work coming out of a house that would shape both punk rock and its highly varied child, post-punk, “Horses” – Smith’s debut – is sometimes singled out as the recorded birth of the former genre. However, trying to attach the punk label to the album is the same as attempting to adjust facts to fit them inside a preconceived narrative. Where punk was a reaction to the indulgent turns popular music had taken during the preceding decade, “Horses” has two tunes that last for more than nine minutes, not to mention an opening six-minute multi-phased track; where punk was about simple instrumentation, “Horses” leans as much towards guitars as it relies on pianos and keyboards; and where punk had objective lyrics, “Horses” flirts with poetry.

That is not to say Smith lived inside a bubble that protected her from the musical revolution that was boiling around her. She was (and still is), by all means, a punk, whether due to the emotional rawness of her performance or because of how she challenged the social and musical establishment; her free poetic spirit, though, led her to grounds only she could reach. “Horses” carries a rather unique combination of rawness and artistic impulse: Smith sings her lyrics as if she were an actor on a stage or a poet who, in an explosive recital, declaims their work like a fiery preacher reads a bible; her band, meanwhile, sounds reckless; and producer John Cale, of The Velvet Underground fame, makes them strike a perfect balance between a hard rock and roll edge and fine art, an equilibrium he knew quite well as the viola player of a group that merged the rock universe with avant-garde aspirations.

“Horses” opens up with a track that perfectly captures that mixture. “Gloria”, the cover of an anthemic Them song, has the energy of its three-chord construction preserved; Smith, however, preludes it with an original piano segment that slowly builds up to the moment her band kicks in. What follows is a sequence of seven songs that, sometimes within the same track, wildly navigate between a highly artistic spectrum and a realm where confrontational punk rock towers over everything else. In “Birdland”, “Break It Up”, “Land”, and “Elegie, Smith makes one question the limits that separate lyrics and poetry; she evokes powerful clashing images and launches them upwards with great power, creating dream-like explosions where thousands of shards of feelings and meanings float in the air waiting to be captured by attentive listeners. She does it solely by using a piano and the sound of her moving voice (as in the brief “Elegy”; or in the lengthy “Birdland”, that starts out quietly and eventually makes its way to a cathartic gripping climax); by going for sheer rock in “Break It Up”, which features the skilled guitar playing of Television’s Tom Verlaine; or by merging both strands of her sound in the three-part epic that is “Land”.

At the same time, Smith also emerges victorious when a more straightforward pop rock vein takes over. In “Redondo Beach”, she uses a reggae backdrop to tell the story of woman desperately looking for her lover, whose body has appeared on the titular location following suicide by drowning; in the dramatic “Free Money”, she talks about the relentless poverty her family was stuck in during her youth; and in “Kimberly”, written for her baby sister, verses that are guided by bass and drums anticipate the post-punk sound a couple of years before it became mainstream. In just eight tracks, then, “Horses” holds more value, variety, and artistic courage than many bands and songwriters are able to achieve in their entire careers. In slightly more than forty minutes, Patti Smith exposes punk rock to the world, shuns the limitations of the movement, experiments (and succeeds) in an astounding variety of styles, proves that writing lyrics can work as an exercise in poetry given the right amount of talent, and shows her worth both as a rock and roll singer and as a declaimer that makes her voice be heard amidst the urban chaos. It is no wonder “Horses” is often proclaimed to be one of the greatest albums of all time.

L.A. Woman

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Album: L.A. Woman

Artist: The Doors

Released: April 19th, 1971

Highlights: Love Her Madly, L.A. Woman, Hyacinth House, Riders on the Storm

From the very start, The Doors were always a blues band at heart. However, the organ of Ray Manzarek, Jim Morrison’s poetic aspirations in his lyrics and behavior, as well as the band’s tendency to venture into long jams that recalled acid trips hid the fact the foundations of their sound rested on the genre that was born in the Deep South. As their career arch developed, the group dove deeper and deeper into their psychedelic ways, eventually losing itself amidst all their experimentation in the coldly received “The Soft Parade”. Upon reaching such a crossroads, The Doors – whether consciously or unconsciously – made the decision to, instead of further navigating down the path of art rock, dial down on the psychedelia and strip their music to its most essential and basic elements. Naturally, then, blues emerged as the grand sovereign of the final two records of the group under the control of Jim Morrison, and the band closed out their classic era with their strongest material ever.

If in “Morrison Hotel”, released in early 1970, some of the experimental elements persisted and could be easily spotted, in “L.A. Woman” The Doors’ turn towards the basics was complete. Much like Led Zeppelin’s first couple of albums, “L.A. Woman” was not ashamed to obviously – and frequently – borrow established blues beats, chord progressions, structures, and guitar licks, and to modernize them in order to make those sounds more palatable to a modern audience. Differently from the British quartet, though, The Doors achieved that update not through guitar virtuosity or hard rock, but via the signature features of their music: the mesmerizing and prominent keyboard work of Ray Manzarek, the tasteful brief and soft guitar solos of Robby Krieger, the firm drums of John Densmore, and Jim Morrison’s writing skills and thick voice, the former heavily clashing with the lyrical simplicity of the genre and the latter fitting it like a glove.

What emerges in “L.A. Woman” is, thereby, a take on blues that is utterly fascinating, engaging, and unique, for it marks the sole instance in which The Doors and their distinctive tools tackled the style head on. “The Changeling” merges the blues of Muddy Waters with the funk of James Brown; the joyful keyboards, melody, and guitar of “Love Her Madly” contrast with sad lyrics about the anguish of being abandoned by a lover; “Been Down So Long” and “Cars Hiss by My Window” utilize traditional blues grooves and structures to different effects, with the first slowly rising in instrumental and vocal intensity as its verses are repeated and the second locking into a quiet lethargic rhythm that makes the song rely on Morrison’s alluring aloof interpretation and Robby Krieger’s piercing guitar licks; and “L.A. Woman” closes the record’s first side with a forward-driving groove that seems perfect to be blasted out of the windows of a car as it challenges the speed limit of an interstate.

The album’s second side, meanwhile, is slightly more varied. “L’America”, the weirdest song of the set, alternates a trippy chorus, built on a marching drum and a circular guitar riff, with a catchy mid-section. The sweet “Hyacinth House” flirts with balladry and radio-friendliness. “Crawling King Snake” and “The WASP (Texas Radio and the Big Beat)” return to the blues and let Morrison add to the mythology constructed around him by, respectively, delivering plenty of sexual innuendo and enunciating like a preacher over another traditional blues groove, while Manzarek and Krieger add color to his words as they are given a lot of room to improvise in that pair of tracks. Finally, “Riders on the Storm” brings the album to a close. Featuring overdubbed vocals that harmonize singing with ominous whispering, which are – in turn – backed up by a soft blues beat and rain sound effects delivered by Manzarek’s keyboard, the dark song tells of a hitchhiking murderer that is on the run and works as a worthy conclusion to The Doors’ greatest record and as a potent final statement by both the classic iteration of the band as well as Jim Morrison himself, who would die four months after the release of “L.A. Woman”.

Let England Shake

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Album: Let England Shake

Artist: PJ Harvey

Released: February 14th, 2011

Highlights: The Last Living Rose, The Glorious Land, All and Everyone, In the Dark Places

A séance conducted over the sounds of British folk music. That is what PJ Harvey’s eighth studio album, “Let England Shake”, appears to be. Recorded inside an isolated church in the United Kingdom’s countryside, it seems the building’s proximity to the sea and the green vastness that surrounds it led the often brilliant Polly Jean to meditate on her country’s past, present, and future. She looks to crimes and atrocities England perpetrated in the name of its perceived exceptionalism and for the glory of its empire, she sees a nation that is still trying to accept its reduced role in the world’s economy, and she raises questions about the paths it must follow and the doubts it must overcome during a century that is still in its infancy. “Let England Shake” calls upon the ghosts of the dead soldiers of the First World War (“On Battleship Hill”) and summons the souls of the children who were left orphaned or deformed due to the human greed for land and power (“The Glorious Land”), and out of their graves they come.

The consistent ghastly nature of “Let England Shake” does not exist solely because PJ Harvey spends many of her words poetically describing or alluding to mistakes and ideas that have left piles of corpses in their wake. Alongside her closest collaborators – multi-instrumentalists Mick Harvey and John Parish, as well as producer Flood – she strikes upon a brand of folk music that seems to be floating in a spiritual realm. The guitars, the drums, the bass, and her new instrumental acquisition, the auto-harp, stay suspended into the air like a faint English fog, and with a wispy high-register tone that is far removed from the roughness of her garage-rock origins, PJ sounds like a siren that has witnessed all the events she narrates. Her voice is not just that of a mythological creature that speaks from inside the mist, though, it is that of the past itself, as if she is channeling the memories of the hills, leaves, tombstones, and valleys that have watched the stupidity of the human race unfold time and time again.

Although it is easy to think of “Let England Shake” as a record that points its fingers exclusively at the artist’s country of birth, much of its beauty actually stems from the universal nature of its haunting message. There is, of course, a predilection for rubbing salt on English wounds: she sarcastically derides how England sees itself as better than its European counterparts even though it is just as prone to modern issues (“The Last Living Rose”) and often returns to the Gallipoli Campaign (“All and Everyone”, “On Battleship Hill”, “The Colour of the Earth”), a major defeat for the British Empire during World War I. However, when she speaks of the failings of diplomacy (“The Words That Maketh Murder”), the dead left by a blind sense of self-righteousness (“The Glorious Land”), and numerous wars (when her lyrics generically depict the despair of soldiers and the anguish found on the occasional silence of battlefields), she is targeting Western civilization as a whole. As the title cut states, Harvey sees the hemisphere weighted down by the dead it left throughout history, and the music of “Let England Shake” implies they do not ever really go away and that, to progress, the West needs to accept what it did, fix its existing shortcomings, and work together to stop going down the same dangerous path in order to avoid repeating those mistakes.

“Let England Shake” simultaneously respects the traditions of folk music and updates the genre to make it appealing to a contemporary audience. Whether it is in the simplicity of “England”, PJ Harvey’s love letter to her country; in the grandeur of “On Battleship Hill”; in the catchy call-and-response construction of “The Glorious Land”; in the poppy radio-friendliness of “The Words That Maketh Murder”; or in the clever sampling done in “Written On the Forehead”; PJ is, at the same time, expanding the boundaries of her songwriting, pushing forward the genre in which she chose to set the record, and creating tunes that somehow strike a balance between being timeless due to their remarkable qualities, ancient because they seem to come from a distant era, and modern as – despite the artistic boldness of their construction – they easily insert themselves into the current mainstream musical vocabulary. With “Let England Shake”, PJ Harvey and her collaborators created a 21st century masterpiece; an album that will forever stand as one of music’s finest achievements.