Saturday, April 02, 2011

Words Maketh Murder: England Shakes

"Take me back to beautiful England
And the grey, damp filthiness of ages"
Polly Jean Harvey has done her research, dug up the past and uncovered some chilling artifacts. With her latest, Let England Shake, the bones of the dead have been given breath and their tongues drip with ghoulish tales. Harvey has sifted through the mud and blood of her native land and its soil can be heard beneath the ghostly strums of her new weapon of choice - the autoharp.

(Photo by Cat Stevens)
This is cadaver music played by a band of harpies and it's harrowing. That isn't a criticism, but a compliment about Harvey's protean ability to shape-shift from an indie queen into a powerful evoker of dangerous memory. Let England Shake's core trio - John Parish, Mick Harvey, and PJ - sound like Macbeth's three "wyrd" sisters grasping for vision amid all the "bubble, bubble toil and trouble" of our violent epoch. And like the wars England and the U.S. so effortlessly pursue, Let England Shake is both sinister and demonic, conjuring the slaughter of the battlefield with vespertine horror.

"The Nightmare Life-in-Death was she,
Who thicks man's blood with cold " - S.T. Coleridge
Released in February, the album has been generally well-received with a few notable exceptions, specifically New Yorker pop critic, Sasha Frere-Jones. In his review, he implies that Harvey is out of her depth, or more precisely, in the wrong waters:
"But the album’s mood is impossible to characterize, because there are so many voices and attempts to find a comfortable position."
Frere-Jones' inability to place the music is understandable. Its precedents aren't to be found anywhere in pop and lie elsewhere in the folk traditions of John Jacob Niles and in one of England's finest vocalists, June Tabor. But when he goes on to criticize the high register of Harvey's voice ("not a lovely sound") and dismisses “The Glorious Land" as a "thunderously obvious protest song" he loses credibility:
"How is our glorious country ploughed?
Not by iron ploughs
Our land is ploughed by tanks and feet, feet marching"
Let England Shake isn't a protest against war any more than Bob Dylan's Blood On The Tracks is a protest against love. Frere-Jones fails to grasp that one role of the artist is to bear witness.

Harvey succeeds in spite of those who believe war and death are passé or that artists should remain silent about the issues of the day. No wonder Frere-Jones longs for Harvey's album from 2000, the inferior Stories from the City, Stories from the Sea.

That said, Harvey can seem too removed from the material, but not because she's out of her depth. As Heather Phares from AllMusic mentions, some of the songs have a cavalier tone that suggests Harvey is toying with her themes rather than committing to them. When the riff to the Four Lads' ridiculously infectious "Istanbul (Not Constantinople)" opens the song, "Let England Shake," or when the schoolyard taunts of "The Words That Maketh Murder" chime in to raise the specter of Eddie Cochran ("What if I take my problem to the United Nations?"), the result is a macabre mockery of the young men now hidden "in the dirt and in the the dark places."

It's a tone that teeters on nihilism, but adds to the overall horror of this truly seminal and provocative album. At a time when the entire world has become a literal battlefield, we need artists, now as ever, to speak out and give voice to the victims. Kudos to PJ Harvey for stepping up and delivering a clarion call.

No comments:

Post a Comment