Albums Review: Sounds Of Yesterday, Society Of Tomorrow

Protest and Awareness — Bringing It All Back Home vs. Let England Shake

Bringing It All Back Home vs. Let England Shake

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Throughout history, human beings have sought to express themselves in many ways in order to make their opinions and views heard on various socio-political topics.

From literature, cinema, visual arts, advertising, among others, we have found several ways of this being enhanced, but none has been able to appropriate more the zeitgeist and society in general, than the musical area.

Musical artists such as Lead Belly, Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, José Mário Branco, Bob Marley, Fela Kuti, The Clash, even countless others, contributed to a formation of new conscious thoughts, in order to educate communities and their surroundings, making them question about their own convictions and ideals, triggering a personal and social self-analysis, with a desire for change and improvement.

Despite the fact that each nation has different issues, many of us want something that is universal, and that is justice and to be heard, in order to contribute to the common well-being.

Therefore, the two proposed albums provided two distinct social realities, but with the same purpose: using their freedom of expression and commercial visibility, to be the voice of generations who want to “express or describe conditions in society that give rise to the discontent”.

Bob Dylan — Bringing It All Back Home

Genre (s): folk rock, folk, country

Tracklist: Here

The first album under review is entitled Bringing It All Back Home, by American artist Bob Dylan, released in 1965 by Columbia Records (iconic American record label, which is currently owned by Sony Music Entertainment).

Robert Zimmerman, a.k.a. Bob Dylan (for the most curious, the stage name was appropriated by his admiration for the American poet Dylan Thomas) is no stranger in the history of popular music.

Through his enigmatism and lyrical-compositional genius, the Nobel Prize for Literature winner has fascinated several generations of fans over the past six decades, including myself.

To me, he has always been and will always be one of my biggest idols, for what he represents to folk music and the appreciation of the creator in favour of the interpreter in the public eye, the music industry and the artistic world.

Woody Guthrie — Bob Dylan’s Idol

By standing out from his peers in the american folk music revival scene (such as Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger, Joan Baez, Judy Collins, Peter, Paul and Mary, among others) for his peculiar singing style and lyrical skill, Dylan cemented himself as one of the greatest leaders of the sociocultural revolution in the 1960's.

Through albums such as The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan (1963) and Another Side of Bob Dylan (1964), and songs such as “Blowin’ In The Wind” and “The Times They Are A-Changin’”, he provided the “soundtrack” for social movements such as Civil Rights and Anti-War Movements, calling for a union and reaction of American society, marked by poverty, racial injustice and war.

However, after a meeting in 1964 with the Beatles (according to biographer Clinton Heylin, “the evening established a personal dimension to the very real rivalry that would harden for the remainder of a momentous decade”) and fatigued with the linear view of the audience around his “man and guitar” folk hero persona, he embarked on a more challenging and driven rock sound (which was highly criticized by the folk movement), something that would prove significant for his second half of the decade (full of classic albums of his own, such as Highway 61 Revisited, Blonde on Blonde and John Wesley Harding, which I undoubtedly recommend).

That said, due to this influence and with the cooperation of his producer Tom Wilson, Dylan embarked on his most ambitious project to date, Bringing It All Back Home.

Bringing It All Back Home Sessions

Production and arranging wise, the album was developed and recorded over an impressive three days, between 13 and 15 January 1965, at Columbia Studios A and B in New York City, New York.

It had the contribution of several instrumentalists like Dylan himself (vocals, guitar, harmonica and keyboards), John P. Hammond (guitar), Al Gorgoni (guitar), Steve Boone (bass guitar), Paul Griffin (piano and keyboards), Bobby Gregg (drums), among others, who contributed to a mixture of several influences, felt in the truth and raspiness of blues genre in the arrangement of the harmonica and pianos, the classic junction of intimacy and inherent truth of the folk genre in the leading vocals and the electricity/liveliness of rock’n’roll in the guitars, drums and bass guitar.

Through this more electric approach in terms of production, arrangement, instrumentation and recording techniques never before seen in the genre, Dylan revolutionized the folk genre (having given rise to the genre that would come to be called folk rock), by not conforming to the dogmas imposed by the movement and “protesting” against the artistic conduct of the genre so simplistic, limitative and little adventurous.

This desire was not only relevant in terms of production, but also proved to be decisive for the lyrical outcome.

As the songwriter in all of his musical projects, Dylan was never afraid to demonstrate his mastery, but in this record, he overcame everything and all of those who considered themselves as connoisseurs of political lyricism in folk.

By not following the pure folk protest form of writing (marked by a more direct method of political intervention), he decided to make use of his intellectuality and culture by permanently challenging any kind of conventional contrast, between past and present (“I wanted to defy time, so that the story took place in the present and the past at the same time. When you look at a painting, you can see any part of it, or see all of it together” — Dylan), incorporating elements of surrealism (on “Bob Dylan’s 115th Dream”, a satirical track about the supposed discovery of America by Christopher Columbus, comparing this period with contemporary society, which so much calls itself a founder and maker of dreams, despite being full of unconsciousness and injustice in the streets), filled with metaphors, aphorisms and paradoxes (on “Loves Minus Zero/No Limit”, in which Dylan mentions the traits he seeks in an ideal woman, characterized by her independence and sense of freedom, knowledge, wisdom and understanding; however, in the end he contradicts himself, claiming that he could not cope with such perfection; on “She Belongs To Me”, a love song that may have been directed to Joan Baez, Suzie Rotolo or Susie Lownds, as well as from the perspective of a father to a daughter; it shows a contradiction, for while the title suggests the man’s control over woman, the lyrics portray the opposite, highlighting a creative dependence on an artistic lover).

“Subterranean Homesick Blues” Music Video

Thus, the lyrical side focuses on several themes, such as:

  • The issues of “anti-establishment” America (on “Subterranean Homesick Blues”, track inspired by Chuck Berry’s “Too Much Monkey Business” and recognised as a precursor to rap and music videos (image above), it addresses the difficulties and absurdities of anti-establishment politics, through the use of satire and nostalgia felt for the oppressed, such as the term “Subterraneans”, originally used by Jack Kerouac to poets of Beat Generation, which according to Allen Ginsberg, highlighted “the underground nature of their illicit activities”);
  • Sadness and call for reflection (on “Mr. Tambourine Man”, in which delirious from a lack of sleep, Dylan requests a song from his imaginary friend, Mr. Tambourine Man, a character inspired by his musician Bruce Langhorne and his Turkish frame drum, a similar instrument to a tambourine (although there is a great debate about the LSD’s possible influence on the lyrics, which Dylan has always denied), which contrasts the search for peace of mind through imagination in childhood, with the inspiration that this may bring him; on “Gates of Eden”, a track inspired by William Blake’s “Songs of Paradise”, by alluding to those interested in greed and power, who never reached and will reach the “Gates of Eden”; it portrays an obscure imaginary of the decadent world, calling for self-consciousness and the identity of an innocent America “bursting” on an ideological level; on “It’s Alright Ma (I’m Only Bleeding), my favourite track of the album, which is considered by many as his departure from political writing, but in my opinion is the opposite; in it, Dylan takes a position of revolt and anguish regarding consumerism, war and wealth overvaluation, portraying it through a surrealistic and paradoxical imaginary of hypocrisy, starting with the title));
  • Connection between identity, irreverence and intervention (on “Maggie’s Farm”, in which he affirms his departure and boredom of the folk movement, mentioning the lack of creativity and innovation felt in it; on “Outlaw Blues”, in which Dylan criticizes the anti-miscenegation laws in the American South at the time, by refusing the classic devotion to folk as a protest singer, embracing the liberated and counter-current bohemian life without compromises; on “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue”, an ambiguous track filled with personal references; although we don’t know who “Baby Blue” is, it may have numerous interpretations, one of which will be the artist’s focus on his artistic passage from a young Bob Dylan to a mature one, i.e., the folk music and Woody Guthrie’s admirer to his own self).

Dylan demonstrated an individualism that places him on a pedestal accompanied by few others, who came before or after him, and in Bringing It All Back Home, the artist does something impressive and brilliant, in which he protests by not protesting.

Despite being contradictory, it is the reality, because by “bringing it all back home”, he rejected his artistic roots through the appropriation of other influences, demonstrating something that a protestant always does, and that is to fight for his identity/authenticity and in everything he believes in.

Due to its bold and personal nature, this musical project opened doors to a revolution in the music industry, by providing courage to experiment and inspiration to several artists of the time, such as The Beatles (who were inspired by it for the creation of classics, such as Rubber Soul and Revolver), The Beach Boys (who were inspired by Revolver, for the creation of their magnum opus Pet Sounds), The Band, among others.

This is my favourite Bob Dylan album, and therefore, I recommend this fascinating, complex and striking album to all folk, folk rock, rock, poetry, literature and songwriting style appreciators (Link here).

PJ Harvey — Let England Shake

Genre (s): folk rock, alternative rock, indie rock

Tracklist: Here

The second album under review is entitled Let England Shake, by British artist PJ Harvey, released in 2011 by Island Records.

MBE (Member of the British Empire), multi-instrumentalist, singer and alternative/indie rocker Polly Jean Harvey marked an entire generation in the 1990’s, by mixing punk, blues and rock influences to leave her fingerprint on British and international underground music history.

After numerous successful albums in the alternative rock and cult scene, such as Dry (1992), Rid of Me (1993) (my personal favourite), To Bring You My Love (1995) and Stories from the City, Stories from the Sea (2000), Harvey embarked on a 21st century experimentation, with electronic and avant-garde approaches to her artistic roots so moved by distinct influences, from Howlin’ Wolf’s blues to The Pogues’ Celtic punk.

By being a highly challenging artist of her lyrical and instrumental boundaries, Harvey has always been known for her dissonant and disturbing compositional method, but in Let England Shake, a particularly introspective, critical and brutally graphic look was noticeable.

Based on influences from different cultural areas, ranging from Harold Pinter’s poetry, Salvador Dalí’s painting and music from The Doors and The Velvet Underground, Harvey aimed to make a personal album, focusing on the idiosyncratic state of her homeland England, UK.

1915’s Gallipoli Campaign — I World War

By drawing inspiration from various war conflicts in the past (more specifically the I and II World Wars and events that took place in them, most notably the 1915’s Gallipoli Campaign), testimonies from enlisted soldiers in Iran and Afghanistan and scars left in the nation’s imaginary present, she presented a paradoxical ideological junction of passion, pride, anguish and anger.

In my opinion, it is not only her best work of the last 20 years, but also the most creative and complex in conceptual terms. It is difficult to break in, but it is complicated not to listen again once you have understood it.

Let England Shake Sessions

Co-produced by Mark “Flood” Ennis, Mick Harvey, John Parish and PJ Harvey, the album was recorded and developed over a period of five weeks (between April and May 2010) at Eype Church in Dorset, United Kingdom, something Harvey had been looking forward to accomplishing for some time: “I remembered that the man who now runs this church as an arts venue had said to me a few times if I’d ever wanted to use it for a show or rehearsals that he’d love that, and that’s when I approached him and asked if we could use it”.

It had the cooperation of several instrumentalists/engineers like PJ Harvey herself (vocals, guitar, autoharp, zither, saxophone and violin), John Parish (backing vocals, guitar, drums, percussion, trombone, rhodes piano, mellotron and xylophone), Mick Harvey (vocals, backing vocals, guitar, bass, bass harmonica, organ, piano, rhodes piano, xylophone, drums and percussion), Jean-Marc Butty (drums and backing vocals), Rob Kirwan (engineer and recording), among others.

Driven by the album’s conceptual matrix, Harvey conducted the vocal parts in a narrative mode suitable for each track (“I couldn’t sing [the songs] in a rich strong mature voice without it sounding completely wrong. So I had to slowly find the voice, and this voice started to develop, almost taking on the role of a narrator), filled with pleasantly “claustrophobic”/dissonant rhythms and sampling techniques (sample of The Police’s “The Bed’s Too Big Without You” on “The Glorious Land”, Eddie Cochran’s “Summertime Blues” on “The Words That Maketh Murder”, Niney the Observer’s “Blood and Fire” on “Written on the Forehead”, etc.) which in sync with the backing vocals lead us to an “ethereal” and divine sound, through various folk rock influences on plucked guitars and bass, conducting/decading pianos and soothing drums, avant-garde in the arrangement of string instruments and Celtic sound felt in brass instruments, such as the saxophone and trombone, which complemented with the lyrical impetus, results in a cathartic match made in heaven.

Provided by an intensive two and a half year research on war conflicts and the testimonies that lived through them, Harvey “rhythmically chronicles” her discontent and sadness (on “Let England Shake”, which sets the album’s motto for Harvey’s accumulated sadness towards her English nation; on “The Last Living Rose”, which by forming a picturesque and cinematic feeling, reflects on the oppositions that England imposes on other countries), regarding the UK’s involvement in various war conflicts and the consequences obtained (on “The Words That Maketh Murder”, a song that vividly depicts the horrors of war, projecting in our subconscious images of soldiers fighting for their lives on a battleground; although we can’t tell about the war that she refers to, Harvey points to a failed diplomacy by making a request for help from the United Nations; on “On Battleship Hill”, an anti-war track inspired by Harvey’s reading of the Gallipolli Campaign, linking it to the wars we have today, which only provide a “dreadful mismanagement and the shocking waste, needless waste”; on “Written on the Forehead”, in which she refers to several wars in the Persian Gulf, inhumanity experienced by refugees and the destruction of these people as a consequence), through the lyrical portray of their visual imagery, whether they are mortal victims (on “All and Everyone”, a track that alludes to the 1915’s Gallipoli Campaign and testimonies of exar veterans, in which she describes what awaits the soldiers on the war ground; on “In The Dark Places”, my favourite track of the album, which consists of a salute and farewell song to war, referring to its uselessness, as it only leads to the death of millions of people; on “Hanging in the Wire”, another track that alludes to the Gallipoli Campaign, shockingly describing the dead bodies in the I World War’s trenches; on “Bitter Branches”, in which Harvey depicts the visual imagery of soldiers leaving home on their way to the war sight, being accompanied by “bitter branches” (weapons) that are “spreading into the world”; on “The Colour of The Earth”, the last track that alludes to the Gallipoli Campaign, directly addressing the loss of thousands of Australian and New Zealand soldiers (ANZAC’s) by soldier Louis, who when confronted with his fatality, came out of the trenches by no longer being able to resist what awaits him)), unemployment and the suffering of families who experienced it (on “The Glorious Land”, where by creating a war imagery, she protests the hypocrisy of a nation that calls itself cooperative and peaceful, which prefers to focus on sending citizens to war, rather than worrying about the internal problems of its citizens).

Despite highlighting the nation’s state of psychological turmoil, caused by its pride and need for geopolitical hegemony, the artist cannot hide her intense feeling of love/hate for her UK motherland (on “England”, a love letter to her country led by dissonance), representing a duality of lyrical intent, characterized by protest, criticism and a small amount of hope and positivity.

Through Let England Shake, Harvey challenged her own convictions and ideals by protesting and calling for a mindset shift, not only of her own nation, but also of the world around her, and this, defines her as a sound and culture changer artist, in the music world.

In spite of not loving her voice, she is an artist that I like and respect a lot for her versatility and curiosity, so I recommend this album, to all appreciators of war conflict history, politics, alternative rock, folk rock and celtic music (Link here).

Clash of Times (Bringing It All Back Home vs. Let England Shake)

From the 1960’s to the 2010’s, the practices of protesting have changed in several ways.

The 60’s empowered many citizens to vocalise what was experienced by them and the most oppressed, led by their participation in various protests, such as the Civil Rights Movement, Women Liberation’s Movement, Anti-War Movement, among others, which made a turbulent generation aware of socio-cultural challenges regarding various topics, such as gender equality, race and equity, making them more independent, sure and not dependent on dogmas instituted by the system.

And to define it, there are not many projects as significant as Bringing It All Back Home.

In spite of not wanting to protest, he did not leave aside his intervening and vocal character, making us aware of the injustices that were faced in his generation, and this makes this a fascinating, complex and striking cultural project in the history of protest and popular music.

Despite taking into account what our predecessors did to our consciousness and awareness, modern times call for something with a more ferocious and intervening sensitivity at different levels.

Triggered by the exponential amount of information acquired, people are more aware of the alterations in society and those most in need of change.

As opposed to the protest form of the 60’s, there is greater multiracial and gender participation in movements such as #MeToo, Black Lives Matter, among others, due to the fact that there is a greater knowledge and openness to achieve the common good, because unity makes strength.

And in my perspective, Let England Shake portrays impeccably this unifying character, for Harvey protests for all those who have suffered and suffer, at the hands of war conflicts.

By not limiting the intervening role for her people, she addresses the dangers led by greed and pride around the world, calling for understanding and cooperation in the resolution of problems rooted in society, and to me, without understanding there is no evolution, and without evolution, there will never be justice for those who deserve it.

“I think there’s a weapon of cynicism to say, ‘Protest doesn’t work. Organizing doesn’t work. Y’all are a bunch of hippies. You know, it doesn’t do anything,’ because, frankly, it’s said out of fear, because it is a potent force for political change” — Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez

Thank you to everyone who read the article, be free to share it with everyone and leave a comment below, of what did you think about it, if that’s your wish 😊.

Hi!! My name’s Miguel and I’m a music and society writer, producer and multi-instrumentalist from Lisbon, Portugal. I hope that my writing will keep you busy :)

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