Since her 1992 debut, Dry, PJ Harvey has variously been raw and angry, scratchy and angry, a lover scorned by Nick Cave on their duet Henry Lee (they also fell in love while recording the song, and broke up later. So, probably more anger there), then in love and happy and winning the Mercury prize for the first time (in 2001 with Stories from the City, Stories from the Sea), then somewhat confessional, before finally arriving at the lyrical, poetic process that wrought Let England Shake in 2011.
Let England Shake brought her a second Mercury prize, along with countless end of year accolades: it was a rare list that year that didn’t end with PJ Harvey’s name. It’s an album about identity, nationality, conflict, war. Three songs reference the Gallipoli Campaign of World War I. But as the perceptive <a href=”http://thequietus.com/articles/05683-pj-harvey-let-england-shake-review” title=””>Quietus review</a> of the album has it, “perhaps this is not so much a collection of anti-war songs as a call to arms for would be war photographers, writers, painters and filmmakers”. In other words, art about art, a line that fits with her art school past, and with her general ambiguity as a recorder and a documenter, rather than a commentator and critic.
The Last Living Rose is at once comparable to The Eton Rifles and Sleep Well Tonight, with its suggestions of violence and decay (“Let me walk through the stinking alleys to the music of drunken beatings”) yet simultaneously it sits apart from those other two: having no agenda of its own, it waits ambivalently for the listener to fill that gap.
Take me back to beautiful England
And the grey damp filthiness of ages
And battered books
And fog rolling down behind the mountains
On the graveyards and dead sea-captains.
Let me walk through the stinking alleys
To the music of drunken beatings