[31 January 2012]
On my trip to England in March 2011, PJ Harvey’s recently-released Let England Shake was my most frequent soundtrack. Now, basing listening choices on region-specificity can feel overly contrived and a little corny; that is, making a point of listening to Kanye West in Chicago or Sonic Youth in New York is simply trying too hard, L.A. Woman in L.A. is way too on-the-nose, etc. But Harvey’s album had two qualities that made it a must listen. For one, it was among the best, most ambitious releases of early 2011, and damned if I was going to not listen to it specifically to avoid corniness. But, more importantly, I thought the physical landscape of England would complement Harvey’s deeply conflicted, but ultimately affectionate, take on her country’s historical and emotional landscapes. Harvey and Seamus Murphy had a similar idea, which is the basis for these short films.
The collaboration between Harvey and documentary photographer Murphy was hatched when she saw his 2008 exhibit and book, A Darkness Visible: Afghanistan. What was initially planned as a series of photos for Let England Shake turned into a documentary film project, which subsequently turned into a series of shorts to accompany every song on the album. Murphy’s photographic work is largely devoted to war- and disease-afflicted regions of the world, which makes him an intriguing fit for the project. Although Harvey’s album focuses largely on England’s military past, particularly World War I, the wounds remaining from these conflicts are more embedded in the nation’s overall psyche than in its geography. Thus he was challenged with fitting songs about England’s war-torn past to its visual present.
In the liner notes, Murphy claims that he intended to find “a visual language that worked with the music of each song, taking its melody and beat as the guide rather than the lyrics”, and the films generally work best when he adheres to that guideline. Murphy wisely let Harvey’s ominous, bouncy riff on “Istanbul (Not Constantinople)” on the title track suggest the empty carnival rides and Punch and Judy performance on its corresponding video. Similarly, ballroom dancers and celebratory rock show attendees are the appropriately disorienting match for the horns and hand-claps on “The Words That Maketh Murder” rather than the “soldiers fall[ing] like lumps of meat” of Harvey’s lyrics. Murphy applies the bright, shuffling opening of “Battleship Hill”, Harvey’s recounting of the Gallipoli Campaign, not to scenes of warfare, but to elderly Bingo players. The concluding line “Cruel nature has won again” doesn’t score an overgrown graveyard or ivy-covered ruins, but a series of determined faces, each younger than the last. The juxtaposition works on an intuitive level—nature may be cruel, but the English are a tenacious people—while not distracting as a direct lyrical match would.
When Murphy directly references Harvey’s lyrics, the results are less consistent. Certainly, it only adds gravity to “In the Dark Places” when Murphy moves from the bell ringers of London’s church of St. Magnus the Martyr to pre-9/11 shots of combat in Kabul that obliquely reflect the song’s fighters in waiting. But given Murphy’s creative approach there and elsewhere, it’s disappointing when the “Bitter Branches” clip leans so heavily on shots of trees, and when “All and Everyone”—otherwise one of the standout videos of the set—goes literal on the line “we advance in the sun”. The fact that Murphy often accumulated footage without specific plans also leads to some strange lapses in tone. Clips of fish and a woman with a lap full of puppies may break up a fairly steady stream of urban and pastoral images, but they come off as if Murphy’s trying to cram in as many of his travel videos as possible.
Those seeking shots of Harvey in action will be largely disappointed. She and her bandmates do appear throughout, with the studio versions of the songs occasionally making way for brief live snippets, but Murphy’s films don’t strive for music video orthodoxy—England, not Polly Jean Harvey, is the star here. Not counting a bonus solo take on “England”, the only complete live performance is a lovely and stark, vocal-only reading of “The Colour of the Earth”, which precedes Murphy’s film for the studio version.
More often than not, however, the clips work on their own terms. Standout images like the red roses placed on a chain on a jetty wall and a boat slowly moving out of frame in “All and Everyone” emphasize the power of a song that initially struck me as an atmospheric placeholder between “The Words That Maketh Murder” and “On Battleship Hill”. “Written on the Forehead”, already an album highlight, is properly served with Harvey’s lyrics recited in Arabic and accompanied by Murphy’s photos from wars overseas.
All of the videos (aside from the bonus “England” performance) are available for free on Harvey’s website, so consider this less a recommendation for the DVD than for the individual films, themselves. Perhaps not ideal for a single sitting due to the sheer number of images that Murphy includes (all beautifully shot, incidentally), but these are all well worth watching.