10 March 2011

Black Paintings

Back in the dark days of late 2002/early 2003, the period of the foredoomed protests leading up to the Iraq war, I often pondered the essentially nostalgic nature of the whole enterprise for many, if not most, of its participants. Nobody who thought about it for longer than five seconds could have believed we had any chance of stopping the invasion, but we had to go out and march anyway because we’d missed the ’60s and the Vietnam War and all that. But the protests were still based on 1960s models that no longer had any political valence in the age of contemporary mass media and right-wing backlash. It was now a simulation, pure and simple, a pathetic token of resistance that could be shown on CNN to reassure viewers that democracy was still just fine, thank you. This wasn’t political action; it was a manifestation of nostalgia for political action. We wanted to protest, but we also wanted to be home in time for dinner. (For an example of real protest with achievable political goals, I would refer you to ongoing events in Wisconsin.) What was lacking was any more rigorous notion of what does and does not constitute political action.

The same could be said for music. Every once in a while, even at this stage in the late-capitalist endgame, we’re subjected to some self-righteous jeremiad about how musicians never write any political songs these days. Such complaints usually come from the left-liberal end of the political spectrum; thus the lack of political content in pop music is usually ascribed to artists’ being self-serving corporate whores, or, if the complainer is a bit smarter, to the consolidation of the music industry into the hands of a tiny number of large, risk-averse conglomerates. I don’t mean to suggest that such claims are without merit, but there is another factor as well. That is, the fact that no one wants to hear it. As a culture, we’ve grown much more sophisticated/cynical (it’s a fine line) about listening to musicians or other celebrities opine on issues about which they don’t necessarily know any more than you or I do. (Of course, they don’t necessarily know any less either.) Obviously, much of this sentiment has been driven by mindless right-wing backlash, but all in all, I don’t think a little skepticism about pop-cultural sloganeering is such a bad thing.

But whither the political artist? Perhaps what we need is a more expansive notion of what that means, one that goes beyond gooey sentiment or propagandistic posturing, one that goes beyond 1960s-era models. So let us consider Polly Jean Harvey, a mercurial genius who’s been many things over the course of her 20-year career—wry feminist, mad blueswoman, sad goth girl—but could never be anything as unbearable as a protest singer, and her new album Let England Shake, a carefully crafted set of songs about World War I and its effects on England’s national culture and sense of identity. I should note here that Harvey has been something of a white whale for me in that I’ve attempted to write about her in the past but never succeeded, which speaks to how difficult she is to pin down as either a musician or an artist. Harvey emerged in the early ’90s as a raw postpunk-blues rocker on a series of noisy albums that culminated with a (mostly) quiet one, 1995’s To Bring You My Love, still Harvey’s masterpiece and one of the only modern blues albums, in the sense of being both truly blues-based (letting out Nirvana, etc.) and truly modern (excusing Jack White and his ilk). But her work since then has been much more diffuse—and controversial—defined less by what it is that what it isn’t: dark, blues-based guitar rock about sex, longing, passion, and womanhood. In other words, defined by its difference from Harvey’s early work. Even Stories From the City, Stories From the Sea (2000), until now Harvey’s only universally acclaimed later work, largely dispensed with her customary angst in favor of upbeat melodic rock. (The disjointed, wheel-spinning Uh Huh Her [2004] is a partial throwback both musically and lyrically.)

Back in 2007, I thought I’d conceived a good idea for a piece centered on Harvey's guitar playing and how she’d upended the traditional gender hierarchy of rock and roll by essentially beating the guys at their own game (“You oughta hear my long snake moan” etc.). I’d planned to peg the piece to the release of her then-forthcoming album White Chalk—which turned out to be a cycle of somber piano-based songs with nary an electric guitar or gesture of masculine bravado in sight. Lesson learned. Given my esteem for Harvey as an artist, it was foolish to think that I could anticipate where she was going next.

Apparently, I’m in good company. Sasha-Frere Jones, in an atypically lazy dismissal of Let England Shake for The New Yorker, does an inordinate amount of complaining about the direction her artistic path has taken. Praising the “visceral” Harvey of the early-to-mid ’90s, Jones decries the lyrical, outward-looking Harvey of recent years, which included a two-year hiatus dedicated to studying and writing poetry. While Jones allows that “Harvey is allowed to change, and to chase any muse she wants,” he seems to be trying to talk himself into it. He then goes on to spend the remainder of the piece talking about how much he hates England, the English, and poetry (just kidding!).

The question is one of authenticity. For Jones, the visceral Harvey is somehow “real” in a way that the lyrical one is not. And of course, authenticity is also key to the ethos of the political popular musician as it’s commonly understood, with political art arising exclusively from the personal convictions of the artist. Although, historically speaking, this is hardly the only way to make political art—let alone art about politically interested subjects. And more generally, the whole notion of authenticity in pop music is under assault right now. It’s no coincidence that the best album of the past few years, Kanye West’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, explicitly rejects the ethos of authenticity, which has dominated hip-hop for more than 20 years, in favor of fantasy.

Harvey takes a different approach on Let England Shake. The songs have a painterly sensibility that's drawn comparisons to Goya's. The album has less in common with White Chalk than with 2009’s A Woman a Man Walked By, the second of two albums credited jointly to Harvey and John Parish, which also dealt with the subject of war and seems to have been an artistic turning point for Harvey. The overriding tone of Let England Shake is that of a lament. Harvey takes both war’s intrinsic evil and basic inevitability as givens, but the stirring, mournful tone of songs like “On Battleship Hill” is neither resigned nor complacent.

Throughout the ’90s, Harvey’s records suffered from overly intrusive producers. Steve Albini’s egotistical stifling of Rid of Me still has its defenders, but Flood’s work on Is This Desire? (1998) often loses the plot, leaving the songs feeling unmoored (although he mostly gets the balance right on To Bring You My Love). Let England Shake appears to have been a more collaborative affair, “made” by PJ Harvey, Mick Harvey (of The Birthday Party), Parish, and Flood, and mixed by Flood. The resulting arrangements, mostly guitar-and-drum-based with other instruments—saxophone, autoharp, organ, bass harmonica—worked in as needed, are nuanced without being delicate, providing ideal settings for Harvey’s eloquent lyrics. The sound feels full but never cluttered. With the possible exception of the hard-charging “Bitter Branches” this music is both too eclectic and too gentle to qualify as rock per se, its beautiful textures belying some gruesome subject matter.

Harvey’s recent poetry sabbatical pays off in the often imagistic lyrics of Let England Shake. The song titles give a sense of the elevated language and contemplative, at times somber, mood of the songs: “The Glorious Land,” “The Last Living Rose,” “The Words That Maketh Murder.” Songs like “On Battleship Hill” employ a battery of literary devices, its grand thematic statement emerging from a tangle of metaphor and concrete detail:

The land returns to how it has always been
The scent of Thyme carried on the wind
Jagged mountains, jutting out
Cracked like teeth in a rotten mouth
On Battleship Hill I hear the wind
Say, “Cruel nature has won again”

The music has a gorgeous sense of dynamics, with an early verse in which Harvey explores the higher end of her register, her voice rendered weightless by Parish’s guitar strumming, then moving easily into a light guitar-piano-drums backdrop, the last two verses bridged by a descending piano figure. Like the land, the music is ultimately undisturbed by the death and carnage to which it plays host.

“All and Everyone,” a somber ballad depicting the 1915 battle at Gallipoli, an eight-month campaign fought under brutal conditions that saw some 400,000 casualties, gazes long and hard at the battlefield and beholds the face of Death itself:

Death hung in the smoke and clung
To 400 acres of useless beachfront
A bank of red earth, dripping down death
Now, and now, and now

And later:

Death was in the staring sun
Fixing its eyes on everyone
It rattled the bones of the Light Horsemen
Still lying out there in the open
As we, advancing in the sun
Sing, “Death to all and everyone”

The stately rhythm and the lyrical emphasis on the aftereffects of combat, rather than the act itself, provide some formal distance between Harvey and her material without allowing the listener to escape the, yes, visceral horror of corpses left on the beach to rot and stink. Indeed, the sights, sounds, and smells of combat are all over Let England Shake (“Flies swarming everywhere/Death lingering, stunk/Over the whole summit peak/Flesh quivering in the heat”). Even the more upbeat songs, like the jangly title track, which recalls the They Might Be Giants classic “Istanbul (Not Constantinople)” (Gallipoli again?), are imbued with forebodings of national decline (“Weighted down with silent dead/I fear our blood won’t rise again”). “The Words That Maketh Murder” tells of soldiers who “fell like lumps of meat/Blown and shot out beyond belief/Arms and legs were in the trees”), before abruptly pivoting into a twangy sing-along, as Harvey and Parish (following Eddie Cochran) faux-naively ask, “Why don’t I take my problem to the United Nations?” several times. It’s the album’s most sardonic moment.

All right, yes, you say, it’s clever, but is it political? Well, if your idea of “political” stops at “Give Peace a Chance,” then no. But beyond the occasional topical reference—the quavering refrain “Oh America, oh England” from “This Glorious Land” can’t help but evoke the war in Iraq—burns a cosmic anger at the devastation and human suffering endemic to war. Gallipoli was a horrible slaughter that need not have happened, but there’s not much point in shouting about such an obvious fact. Sometimes it’s enough, like Goya, to show—and then look away.

So to summarize: Let England Shake is visceral, but not personal. It’s political, but in a disinterested way not predicated on conventional notions of authenticity. It doesn’t sound much like any of Harvey’s other records. And I have no idea what she’ll do next.