Someone has asked me if I could do a post on music that would complement a dinner party. While I muse on this, I’ve decided to write about music that would, instead, go down like a lead zeppelin over the creamed celeriac and braised pork belly (this is an easy job as the bulk of my collection falls into this murky category(!)).
Polly Jean Harvey, or PJ Harvey, is renowned for completely reinventing herself every time she releases a new album. Through her eight albums (released over a twenty year period) she has morphed from young, staunch punk guitarist to ethereal elfin white witch to historical humanist poet. One of the exciting things about waiting for a new PJ Harvey release is that you never know what you’re going to get. I’m going to talk about two of her albums that are generally considered her most accessible – 2000’s ‘Stories from the City, Stories from the Sea‘ and the lauded ‘Let England Shake‘, released in 2011 – both of which led to PJ Harvey winning the Mercury Music Prize.
‘Stories’ focuses on PJ Harvey’s six- month stay in New York and, some have said, about her relationship with Vincent Gallo. Certainly PJ has never sounded so shiny, happy and peppy before or since. Take ‘Good Fortune’ for example, PJ’s nod (whether intended or not) to Patti Smith – this is my ‘go-to’ track whenever I need to feel slighty shinier myself. It usually works a treat:
Another track I will never tire of is PJ’s hypnotic, purring duet with Thom Yorke of Radiohead – ‘This Mess We’re In’ – with its lush, languorous undertones set against the city that never sleeps:
‘Stories’ is a robust, lusty rock album bursting with electric guitars and upfront lyrics. ‘I can’t believe that life’s so complex when I just want to sit here and watch you undress,’ PJ sings in the humourously entitled ‘This Is Love’. Best of all, these 13 tracks with their hooky melodies, cement themselves in your frontal lobe so you’ll want to revisit the entire album again and again.
‘Let England Shake’ sounds like an entirely different beast. For many, many people it was 2011’s best album, also illustrated by the multitude of awards it won. It is PJ Harvey’s whispered, seething love letter to her decaying homeland with its ‘damp filthiness of ages’ and ‘stinking alleys’. Listen to the words in ‘The Last Living Rose’….
This video is just one of twelve produced by war-photographer Seamus Murphy, who made a series of short films to go with each of the tracks on the album. Here’s another: ‘England’…
‘Let England Shake’ is a haunting, sombre reflection of the effect of war on both England and those individuals who fought for her: ‘I’ve seen and done things I want to forget, I’ve seen soldiers fall like lumps of meat…What if I take my problems to the United Nations’. Yes, well, ‘what if’ indeed – the futility of any remedy available to any soldier comes through loud and clear as PJ hammers this last line home. There is an underlying bitterness to this album as PJ tries to align the warped love of one’s nation with the unmitigated loss of life in the bloody, endless battles of Anzac Cove, Bolton’s Ridge, Battleship Hill and, more recently, Afghanistan.
Luckily for the listener, as well as serving as a disturbing reminder of the dark side of human nature, the album as a whole is intensely beautiful and thought-provoking. Each song is memorable in its own right. The multi-talented Ms Harvey said, in 2011, to English magazine NME: “I wanted the music to have an energy and sense of being uplifting, of energizing, of unifying, of … gathering together as people. I wanted it to be communal. So the melodies had to be something that were conducive to wanting to sing along with.… Many voices could sing these words.”
And they do.