Friday, 6 May 2011

PJ Harvey on Later and Seamus Murphy's Let England Shake Films

PJ Harvey made a striking appearance on Later last week. She stood in isolation, apart from her band, who worked in the shadows like stout yeomen in their waistcoats and shirtsleeves. Robed in white with black, crow like feather headdress, she was part redemptive angel of Mons, part carrion valkyrie. She strummed the autoharp, an instrument more commonly associated with American folk and country music, and which June Carter played both within and outside of the Carter Family. I seem to remember Dusty playing one during her Springfields years, and Broadcast used an amplified and electronically affected one in some of their performances. There’s something visually arresting in the way it is cradled in the arms, its sloping upper edge like a resting head, strums like soothing strokes. This being PJ Harvey, of course, tenderness is often undercut by violence and unease. She sings Let England Shake and Words that Maketh Murder, the latter talking of seeing arms and legs in trees, an image which conjures up Goya’s series of prints The Disasters of War, in particular plate 37 – Esto Es Peor (This is Worse). Finally, she straps on a white guitar (the guitar is the instrument of the angelic side) for The Glorious Land. The Unthanks made for an ideal musical double bill on the show, their recent album Last offering, like Let England Shake, a state of England survey through songs which look at the present with a sense of continuity and eternal recurrence. Both albums have simple but graphically striking black and white covers, as well. They sang Queen of Hearts, with Rachel plucking haunted music box notes on the thumb piano, and a truncated Last, without the lonely neighbours coda. You can also see an extra performance on the Later site of the heartwrenching No One Knows I’m Gone, appropriately sung in an empty studio, its power only slightly diminished by the hyperactive swooping and circling of the cameramen, clearly concerned for our pitiful, butterfly attention spans. Jools Holland was more than usually effusive in his enthusiasm for the sisters. PJ Harvey was shown watching and listening intently. They are, you sensed, fellow artistic spirits.

Over on PJ Harvey’s website, you can find a series of films made by the photographer Seamus Murphy which accompany all of the songs on Let England Shake. They are shot through with quintessentially English scenes, and Murphy displays an acute eye for the atmosphere of the rural landscape. These are films which focus on earth, trees, sky and moon, and capture the spirit of place, the lay of the land. The camera frames compositions of both widescreen landscape and its detailed, close-up textures. Mists rise off early morning rivers, and the moon casts a soft corona through dappled cloud. Cliffs hunch up against flattened seascapes and the eroding waves rake the stony shoreline. A scatter of crows rises from the crown of an oak tree as if they’ve been shaken loose. The rich browns of ploughed fields predominate, and there is also the mud of tidal river reaches upon which boats loll, awkwardly stranded. Blood red winter berries are brought into bright, primary coloured focus against the snow-shrouded gravestones of the churchyard. Raindrops on still water send concentric circles shivering out to intersect in complex, ever-changing interference patterns, and a bombardment of hailstones richochet back off a paved surface. There are various shots of paintings on walls, amateur oils and faded Constable prints, which indicated the centrality of landscape in the English psyche and its art over the years.

Playing in church
The landscape is also seen in transitory glances from the point of view of the traveller. A moon hangs over a summer field beside an isolated tree, seen through the moving frame of a train window. It reminds me of the line from my favourite Simon and Garfunkel song, America, in which the protagonist is travelling across country on a greyhound bus and observes at one point that ‘a moon rose over an open field’. Landscapes glimpsed from moving transport always seem evocative and full of imaginative possibility. In another shot, tree branches are shot rushing by from an upward gazing perspective, their canopied weave speeding into an impressionistic blur, like the pattern on a sun-dappled carpet (as dwelled upon lovingly by Terence Davies’ camera in The Long Day Closes). Blown snow adheres to a car window, swiftly obscuring the perspective on the chill grey landscape beyond.

The themes of war and country which colour the album give the romantic view of the countryside an extra edge. These were the kind of pictures of a pastoral paradise which were used on propaganda posters, the dream England for which people were encouraged to fight and die. The fluctuating boom of the wind picked up by the microphone at the otherwise silent start of several films sounds like the sonic shudder of distant bombs, the approaching front of war rumbling ever nearer. In the film for Written on the Forehead, photos from foreign wars (Iraq, Afghanistan) are juxtaposed with images of transitory spaces: staircases, flyovers, trains and edge of town industrial estates. The film ends with a seated figure beating his drum from the crest of a hill (Glastonbury Tor?) like a lookout waiting to light at beacon at the first sign of the armies appearing on the horizon. The lyrics are written from the perspective of people in other countries finding war coming to their town, but we are forced to imagine it happening here. The reclining skeleton in its glass museum case seen at the start of the Last Living Rose film is viewed from behind so that we share its fixed perspective. It gazes out at the life from which it is sealed off, a remote an passive observer. It is the invisible presence in all the films, the quietly spectating spectre of death which haunts all the songs. Its fossilized, age-browned bones have long since shed ‘blood in earth’ as the lyrics of Colour of Earth put it, so that it has now become an emanation of the land into which it has diffused. Death is also present in the churchyard, written in stone, and in the traces and treasures memorialising old wars; the old sepia photographs and tarnished medals, with their faded bands of colour in the ribbon. In the film for The Glorious Land we see a First World War trench as reproduced in the Imperial War Museum, housed in the old Bedlam asylum. Dead leaves float on the surface of water, shot pheasants hang on the wire and prayer candles are lit by the altar in memory of the lost. The land is ‘weighted down by the silent dead’ as Harvey puts it in Let England Shake.

Playing in the front room
There is a sense of deliberate distancing to many of the films, of remote viewing, observing from a certain remove (as embodied by the observing skeleton). Polly herself starts singing some of her songs from a living room/music room, and we see various calm rural scenes (with ruminant cows) through the windows of cosy domestic interiors. There is a bit of literal remote viewing, as curved, refracted people are seen projected onto the table top surface of the camera obscura on the Clifton Downs above Bristol (identifiable by the stretched out cables of Brunel’s suspension bridge). There are portraits of different people throughout, their faces in still repose made the objects of contemplation whilst they, at the same time, stare out at us in non-hostile confrontation through the camera lens. A woman in an armchair overrun by exuberant dogs becomes an emblematic representative of the English love of animals. Elsewhere, parrots, cows, ducks and swans, exhibiting varying degrees of docile domesticity, signify the placid nature of the island’s fauna. The songs themselves are often prefaced by readings from people who demonstrate the variety of English accents: an old West Country gent reads Let England Shake, a man reads the lyrics of Written on the Forehead in Arabic, Hanging on the Wire comes over in a North Eastern accent, In the Dark Places is broad London, and Battleship Hill, with its bitter memories of war, is prefaced what sounds like a German, with his bottle of native lager strategically placed before him. Various typical English pursuits are observed: Elderly couples taking a turn around an old dance hall; bingo players seated at rows of tables in the auditorium of an old cinema, focussing with fierce intensity on the cards before them; a sparse crowd on an old-fashioned football terrace; bell ringers heaving on the bell ropes dangling from the church tower. In Let England Shake, fairground rides and props stored away for the winter on a bleak concrete concourse and cracked and aged Punch and Judy figures stand in for a derelict and ruined old England, a glowing, golden merry go round with steam pipe organ (possibly the same one which pulled up at Bristol harbour for the annual festival last year) the glory days gone by.

There are stories from the city, too, arrived at via smeared sodium light night drives. In the film for In the Dark Places, we catch a glimpse of Erno Goldfinger’s Balfron Tower in the Poplar area of East London, possibly shot from the perspective of its condemned brutalist neighbour, Robin Hood Gardens. A sign for the ‘Joe Strummer Subway’ (marking the underpass beside the Westway where he used to busk in pre-Clash days) indicates that we’ve gone west to the Edgware Road. A predominantly Middle Eastern area, sometimes known as ‘Little Beirut’ or ‘Little Cairo’, its balconies sport a mix of objects giving clues as to the nature of the inhabitants beyond: Arabic carpets hung out to air alongside pictures of local football stars from the London clubs. In a wry comment on the lack of any significant non-WASP presence in the countryside, another shot offers a slow upward pan from two pairs of green wellies, progressively revealing the usual country squire’s tweedy and wax-jacketed uniform, only to finally rest on the faces of two immaculately turned out black gents. It reminds me of the producer of (quite tasty) sausages who styles himself and his company The Black Farmer, knowing full well that the seeming incongruity of such a title will be startling and attention grabbing in itself. Elsewhere, a man sits out on the street with the pieces of furniture which he is presumably looking to sell, the blue sign of a Barclays Bank looming significantly in the background. A simple shot of an old-fashioned shop window in an unpeopled small town street, its interior still lit, illuminating the dummies which look out into the dark night, is filled with mysterious melancholy.

The modern hymnal
There are other beautiful and memorable shots in these films. We get a glimpse of the church in which the album was recorded, and there is a great image of PJ seen in profile, the numbers of the hymns from the previous service displayed behind her. It makes you reflect on the degree to which the music draws from generations of hymnal traditions as well as the more acceptable rock and folk influences. Polly is seen singing the introductions to several songs with only her autoharp for accompaniment, revealing the simple bones behind the fleshed out final product. These introductions, and some of the readings, include mistakes (Harvey mutters an ‘oh bugger’ after one false start) – humanity is always revealed through error. Perhaps the single most striking image for me was of an illuminated ferris wheel, its light, cast behind a row of winter trees, throwing them into clearly etched patterns against the sky. It’s one of many memorable scenes in these beautifully realised films, which really serve to enhance a suite of powerful English songs. You can find them all here.

Riding the wheel of night


Christian said...

I found your thoughts very, very interesting and inspiring! I just discovered PJ Harvey some days ago and – literally – can't stop listening to Let England Shake. Part of it is due to the videos no doubt, thank you for sharing your thoughts on these!

Chris, from Germany

Jez Winship said...

Thanks. Seamus Murphy's videos have now been released on a dvd: