Singer PJ Harvey and war

By Hiram Lee in the USA:

PJ Harvey and John Parish in concert

26 June 2009

In 1996, British singer-songwriter PJ Harvey collaborated on an album with composer and multi-instrumentalist John Parish. The work, Dance Hall at Louse Point, stands out as one of the most interesting, challenging, and emotionally rich of Harvey’s career. While Harvey and Parish have continued to collaborate since that time, no new recordings have been released under both their names until a new album this year, A Woman a Man Walked By.

This writer recently had the opportunity to see Harvey and Parish perform in Covington, Kentucky, a small city just across the Ohio River from Cincinnati. It was a remarkable concert, with both Harvey and Parish setting aside more popular works from their careers as solo artists in favor of those songs the two had composed together on Dance Hall and A Woman a Man Walked By. Harvey’s voice was in fine form, as was Parish and his band. …

Among the most “human” songs from the new album and of those performed that night in Covington was “The Soldiers,” most of which featured only Harvey’s voice and Parish on ukulele. The lyrics are haunting and unsettling: “I imagine a dream in which I’m a soldier and I’m walking on the faces of dead women and everyone I’ve left behind me.” Following the nightmare described, the narrator begs to be set free from such disturbing conditions: “Send me home restless, send me home damaged, send me home dispossessed, send me home damaged and wanting.”

During certain parts of the song, Harvey would raise herself up and down on one foot as though marching in place, one of several occasions on which she used physical movement to add to the stories and emotions communicated by her songs. Parish’s fragile accompaniment on ukulele was the perfect answer to the lyrics and vice versa.

In many ways, “The Soldiers” found a companion piece in “Civil War Correspondent,” taken from Dance Hall at Louse Point. In this song, the “correspondent” sings: “Words leave my heart dry, words can’t save life, love has no place here, no joy, no tears.” And in the chorus: “I shout but he don’t hear. I put down on a page, ‘Darling spare me your tears, just send me the light of day.’”

Both songs contain an ambiguity: is Harvey singing directly of someone who has experienced war, or is she using that experience as a metaphor for someone who is struggling with his or her own life, love and loss? The use of war imagery is interesting. One gets a sense that whatever personal struggles may be involved, they are connected to the world in some intimate way, a way in which Harvey is perhaps only just able to grasp.

One finds a similar device in other songs from the new album, in which personal relationships have a connection to places, times, something in the air, etc. “Leaving California,” a perfect example of this, was another of the more exceptional songs performed in Covington. Using her falsetto range, something Harvey has more regularly featured in her recent work, she sang, “No one but me is walking under palms that give no shade. I’m leaving you today.” And later: “Oh, give me some shade, Oh, England, come soon. How could I have believed that I could live and breathe in you?” “California killed me,” she adds finally, with frailty.

Is it someone in California, California itself, or both that has left the song’s narrator so demoralized? One feels it is all woven together.

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4 thoughts on “Singer PJ Harvey and war

  1. Pingback: PJ Harvey song about Guantanamo prisoner | Dear Kitty. Some blog

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  4. Pingback: PJ Harvey’s new album, review | Dear Kitty. Some blog

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