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PJ Harvey’s deserving Mercury triumph

PJ Harvey has garnered an extraordinary amount of press attention and critical acclaim for her eighth LP, Let England Shake – most recently she has been awarded the Barclaycard Mercury Prize for a second time. Such has been the scale of Harvey’s achievement that the widespread coverage is bound to attract some new curious fans to the fold. So what makes Let England Shake so good, and is it representative of Harvey’s work as a whole?

The answer to the latter question is both yes and no. Each new LP Harvey delivers is different in some way, a progression from the work before – in other words, taking what she’s learned from one project and refashioning it into something new on the next. The raw, lo-fi blues rock of her 1992 debut Dry was succeeded by 1993’s even more raw, blistering punk-blues Rid of Me. Two years later, Harvey heightened the blues elements but in a much more sonically sophisticated, diverse framework on 1995’s To Bring You My Love before taking the hint of burbling electronics and uneasy effects to a new level on 1998’s Is This Desire?.

Keen to move away from such a dark sound, Harvey moved into a more straightforward rock territory on the Mercury Music Prize-winning Stories from the City, Stories from the Sea (2000), which shared the power of her earlier records but married them to more refined melodies. Faced with how to follow such a commercial and critical high, Harvey deconstructed and turned in a self-produced, largely self-played “scrapbook” type of record on the scratchy lo-fi rock of Uh Huh Her (2004), which also introduced a more folk-inspired element to her work.

As strong as it may have been, Uh Huh Her signalled something of a creative dead-end for Harvey; her next move was inspired. Abandoning her trusty guitar, she composed on piano for the first time – some 15 years into her career – and the result was the spectral, spooky White Chalk, her most intimate record. Ever since, Harvey has been riding a creative wave and seems to be in the midst of a real purple patch. Her recent collaboration album with John Parish, A Woman A Man Walked By, brought back a scratchy blues-folk quality and Let England Shake seems to take some cues from there.

The biggest change is in the lyrical style; before, Harvey often used intriguing imagery, often visceral and sometimes Biblical, but since White Chalk there has definitely been a sense of the words having paramount importance. This is lyrically one of her strongest albums, cohesive and full of imagery of war and conflict. Rather than being a straightforward political album, Harvey imagines herself as a “war song correspondent,” delivering news from the front lines. Thus, there’s no political bias, more observations of war’s effects on humankind in general. Harvey has said that she read widely, from the poetry of Harold Pinter and TS Eliot to contemporary eyewitness accounts from people in Afghanistan and Iraq, and while the lyrics rarely go into specifics, there’s definitely the sense that Harvey has done her research and approaches such thorny topics with confidence and without a preachy tone.

The main reason the evocative lyrics have such resonance is in the way Harvey marries them to some of her most upbeat melodies and shimmering production. Largely eschewing the piano of White Chalk in favour of walls of guitars and, significantly, the autoharp, the instrumentation gives the album a unique, vaguely folk-tinged feel that feels both timeless and extremely fresh all at once. The music is full of vitality and energy and movement, and Harvey is backed by a sterling band that includes long-time collaborators John Parish and Mick Harvey on a variety of instruments and drummer Jean-Marc Butty, recording the album together over a five-week period in a Dorset church in the spring of 2010. The percussion is one of the most impressive parts of the album; it’s very rarely straightforward drum beats – Butty is incredibly inventive in how he provides the underpinning for these songs, which often feel very light and floaty thanks to the effects on the guitars (in prior work, Harvey’s guitar playing has mostly been very raw, very bluesy, very powerful; here it’s almost weightless, reminiscent of Cocteau Twins, and it’s a unique new flavour.)

Vocally too, she’s developing new phrasing techniques. The characterless voice she employed on White Chalk, pitched higher, is retained but has a much throatier quality; it’s still recognisably PJ Harvey singing, but a fresh new approach (and listen to the piercingly high soprano notes she reaches on “On Battleship Hill.”) Melodically, many songs have a very simple, sing-song quality that communicates the lyrics effectively and, especially when Harvey is singing some quite horrific lyrics, only adds to the impact. Thus, the devastating “Hanging in the Wire” is musically one of the softest and most beautiful songs in her catalogue, while “Let England Shake” has an almost jangly, hypnotic, skeletal Tom Waits-style autoharp/xylophone arrangement. “England” features a Kurdish folk song sample but the exoticism is in the melody alone, for the song is largely delivered solo on acoustic guitar, while “Written on the Forehead” is the album’s most shimmering number and features a surprising but wonderfully effective reggae sample.

Other highlights include the galloping urgency of “The Glorious Land,” which features dissonant bugle calls, the haunting, solemn “All and Everyone,” which features an inspired dirge-like coda that features some mournful saxophone, and the fast-rocking “Bitter Branches.” Lead single “The Words That Maketh Murder” features one of the album’s catchiest melodies and autoharp parts, also making use of handclaps and male vocals, while the immediately accessible “The Last Living Rose” ranks among Harvey’s most beautiful, simple songs. “The Colour of the Earth” ends the album on a communal, sing-song, anthemic tone.

Let England Shake is a landmark work. It’s not far and away Harvey’s best; she’s incredibly consistent and each of her records brings something exciting to the table, but Let England Shake has a cohesion and assurance – and originality – that really marks it out as something special. On first listen, some of the more unusual songs (such as “England” and the dissonant bugle calls in “The Glorious Land”) may be slightly off-putting, but repeated listening reveals this to be one of Harvey’s strongest and most unusual but beautiful albums. It slots nicely within her catalogue yet simultaneously feels like a real bold new step, and it is exciting to ponder quite where she will go next.

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Vintage TV: “We’ll Meet Again” and “Edward the Seventh”

Filmed in 1981 and broadcast early the following year, “We’ll Meet Again” follows the lives of the people of Market Wetherby, a (fictional) small town in Suffolk, in 1943 as the war rages and the Americans arrive on British soil. The main driving plot of the series is the love story between the married Dr. Helen Dereham (played superbly by the late Susannah York) and Major Jim Kiley (Michael J. Shannon). It’s not your usual “illicit affair” kind of storyline, and there are some surprising twists and turns along the way. Dr. Helen is torn between her love for Jim and her duties as a wife to her injured husband Ronnie, mother to Cambridge University student Pat, and general pillar of the community.

Within this main story there are some great subplots – the lovely romance between the unassuming war widow Sally and American Mac, and the ensuing troubles with Sally’s cantankerous mother-in-law Ruby; shop owner Albert Mundy having to deal with his prejudices against the Americans as his son and daughter navigate their way in the world; shy Vi’s blossoming as she falls for Chuck; and the humorous bickering and jostling between the American boys for the affections of landlord’s daughter Rosie. Footage of the planes are interwoven too, so amid the drama and romance you get a sense of the realities of the war too. It’s certainly not all plain sailing in this series, and there are some shocking surprises along the way.

Initially I thought the series was going to be quite slow-moving and unengaging, but a couple of episodes in I was hooked and these characters really get inside your heart. The writing and acting are all of impressive quality, and the pacing really picks up; the thirteen episodes, around an hour in length, fly by and at the end you get the feeling that it could certainly have continued for another series. But for what it is, “We’ll Meet Again” is lovely – funny and sad all at once, and it has aged well.

I’d never seen “Edward the Seventh” until just now; at this time of writing, it was originally screened more than 36 years ago and while certain elements of the series are understandably dated by today’s standards – filming style, shot types – it appears to have lost none of its power to really engage the viewer. It tells the story of Edward the Seventh, or Bertie, from birth to death, through his tricky schooldays to his frustrated philandering as an underused heir apparent, to his eventual role as king. Timothy West is astonishingly good as the adult Bertie, and he is not alone. Alongside the wonderful costumes and plot twists (all based on real history, of course), the main draw of “Edward the Seventh” is the raft of incredible performances. Helen Ryan is superb as the exceptionally tolerant and thoughtful Alix, Robert Hardy is fantastic in the early episodes as Prince Albert, and if all you know of Felicity Kendal is “The Good Life” then she is bound to surprise you with an impressive turn here. But perhaps my favourite performance is Annette Crosbie’s as Queen Victoria; Crosbie, who was in her early forties when the series was produced, plays Victoria from early adulthood to death (it’s a remarkable feat of ingenious make-up and costuming!) with breathtaking aplomb and deservedly won a BAFTA for the performance. I was actually quite taken aback by the nuance and strength of her performance, as I was with the entire cast.

The writing is uniformly strong, it looks great, and at 50 minutes each, the thirteen episodes move along at a brisk pace. I was captivated, having not much knowledge of this period in history and having never seen the series before. Proof that great shows really are built to last and can find new audiences decades after their original production.

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