Feb 11, 2011

SO GLAD I DON'T HAVE TO LISTEN TO: P J Harvey's 'Let England Shake'*

"It says something that 'Let England Shake' – an opaque exploration of Englishness delivered in a high, keening voice, that contains not one, not two, but three harrowing songs that explicitly reference the 1915 Gallipoli campaign and a further handful that seem more generally informed by the carnage of the first world war – represents one of the more approachable albums in her oeuvre.... its 40 minutes passes without anyone getting anything shoved up their bum... It's more a matter of tone. The music sounds muted, misty and ambiguous, which seems to fit with Harvey's vision of England: "The damp grey filthiness of ages, fog rolling down behind the mountains and on the graveyards and dead sea captains," she sings on The Last Living Rose.... On Written on the Forehead, she performs a similar trick with an even more unlikely source – reggae singer Niney the Observer's Blood and Fire, a deceptively cheery paean to imminent apocalypse. Its weird juxtaposition of subject matter and mood infect the whole song, which is possessed both of a beautiful melody and a lyric about people trying to escape a rioting city and drowning in sewage.... Harvey's voice certainly has its dramatic moments... it's almost blank-eyed as she details The Words That Maketh Murder's battlefield carnage: soldiers falling "like lumps of meat", trees hung with severed limbs... Rock songwriters don't write much about the first world war, but, perhaps understandably, when they do, they have a tendency to lay it on a bit thick: you end up with songs like the Zombies' The Butcher's Tale, so ripe it sounds more like the work of a fromagier. Harvey clearly understands that the horror doesn't really need embellishing: her way sounds infinitely more shocking and affecting than all the machine-gun sound effects in the world." — The Guardian
Ah England, how I miss her so. I was just beginning to wonder if I would ever experience her damp grey filthiness again, or see the fog rolling down across the graves of dead sea captains first hand, and along comes P J Harvey with her opaque exploration of Englishness sung in a high, keening voice to save me the bother. It's great that those sea-captains are dead, by the way. When I left, in 1999, they were burying them while still alive, a nasty business to be sure, but no nastier than the blood and filth and sewage that you have to wade through to get into central London these days. The important thing here, as the Guardian's critic rightly notes, is subtlety. The damp grey filthiness of ages needs no embellishment. Londoners may be drowning in their own filth, but not all of them. Some have clambered to safety. It may be carnage on the battlefield, but not every tree is hung with the severed limbs of England's dead sons. Some merely provide them with shade. And while it is true that the number of people trying to shove stuff up your bum has only grown exponentially over the years, it shows great restraint on P J Harvey's part that she has managed to make an entire album dedicated to my swinish, swill-filled homeland without someone getting something inserted into their arse. When I was living there, it was pretty much the only surefire way you had of knowing that you were indeed residing in England and not, say, France or Poland. Cucumbers, milk cartons, Rhododendrun staulks, the thumbs of passing bobbies — again, not a pleasant business, but a small price to pay for the privelage of living in a nation that wages so many exciting wars, all their violence and futility, their pity and terror, never better expressed than in the verse-chorus-verse-chorus-middle-eight structure of your classic rock song.

* An occasional column devoted to those books, movies and pieces of music which would, on balance, better serve us by remaining unread, unwatched and unlistened to, based on the principle that the reactions we have to art works in absentia can be every bit as enriching as to those demanding our urgent personal attention

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