Sometimes we let our guard down. Sometimes a glimmer gets in through a crack and everything changes. Happens to all of us, it has to. I know it happens to me. Not quite as much as I would like, but it happens. Happened recently, the other afternoon in fact. And it has left me not quite speechless but unable to move from what I observed. I saw a video the other day, on MTVU (the last part of the MTV diaspora that really plays music videos) that stuck with me and caught me flatfooted. It was two minutes until the top of the hour, I remember that as I considered recording what I was seeing—it was that powerful. As I sat on my couch, home from work with borderline walking pneumonia, I saw the video for PJ Harvey’s song, “The Colour of the Earth.”

It starts starkly, four people in various shades of black standing in front of deep green ground foliage. PJ Harvey is easily recognized, looking fetching clad all in black. Yet hers is not the first voice, no, the first voice belongs to Australian bon vivant Mick Harvey. Initially a member of the Bad Seeds now sprung free, Harvey’s is the first voice heard. Then Polly Harvey, then Jon Parish then the other guy (who I am assuming is the producer Flood). All four sing the song, coming in at different points. And after 1.54 of this the song closes slowly. And then begins anew. But this version, the second version on the video, is the full band version, recoded in studio with full instrumentation.

Over the weekend, in an apparent state of delirium, I dreamt of a street in Australia. The street was across the University of New South Wales campus and housed the bus station to catch the 373 to Circular Quay and Syndey Harbor. The name of the road is ANZAC Parade. I didn’t spend much time on this street but I dreamt of it over the weekend. Waking and coughing I thought about the Australia and New Zealand Army Corps, the organization that lends their name to the acronym. To the untrained or the basically informed, the ANZAC are probably best known for the eight month battle of the Gallipoli peninsula during World War I. As the first war felt by Australians and New Zealanders, the Battle of Gallipoli caused the death of 8709 Australians and 2721 Kiwis. Why did I dream about this? Why after all these years did my mind come back to the ANZAC? Who knows.

As I listened to the song out of the corner of my eye I heard the lyric, “Fighting in the ANZAC trench.” My brain stopped whatever it was I had been doing and just began to listen. When the a capella version ends and the band version begins there is a shocking depth to the song. It feels rich and sad and the images that make up the video are all completely striking and crisp and. . . mournful. It is a song about war, about friendship in times of struggle, about death and loss. The images in the video were filmed by a man named Seamus Murphy, who I can safely say is not a household name. Maybe he should be, though, as when I dug a bit deeper it turns out that Murphy is a war photographer who has been photographing the aftereffects of what nations do to other nations for many years. It seems that while the song deals with death, the death of a solider, the death of a friend (as the lyrics state), that the video is beautiful due to the song’s subject.

The images we see: older gentlemen, cows in the cold, an old bike, a football flag, tuning a guitar, birds in the sky. Every image you see is one of simple beauty. The first face you see is smiling, followed by the evening sun breaking onto a tree. Chickens. A pub. The little things, the little things in life that are the most important. The things in life that are lost in an instant when we die. Hail falling on the ground. The things that we might see all the time yet never pay much attention to due to the hectic natures of modern life.

The song is the last song on Harvey’s latest album, Let England Shake. Murphy has shot more than one video for the LP but when I think about the song and its placement on the LP and the video it feels all the more striking. I haven’t heard (or seen) much more from the LP but I plan to, all on the strength of this one track and one video. And as I read about the LP the choice of Murphy is fitting.

It also got me thinking about Polly Harvey as an artist. When she first became a force it was in the 90s, a wacky time as I think back. Her trio was upfront and muscular, as was her singing and presence. Spin magazine put her on the cover wearing only a bra and I remember the lines of record store customers who when faced with a female ideal that did not revolve around traditional beauty said “ick” more often that I would have liked to have heard. From there she mutated into a blues banshee on To Bring You My Love. A romance with Nick Cave led to a few haunting LPs for she released her “New York” LP, Stories From the City, Stories From The Sea. Thinking about nearly 20 years with this female artist in the continuum of music makes me think about the nature of female artists then and now. When I first became aware of Harvey it seemed like music was more open to different female artists—heavy on the word artist—existing in the marketplace. Now? Now not so much. There are no popular female artists nowadays that are different, that look different. This is not a slam on her looks, but Polly Harvey has a small face and a big nose. She stands out and yet is beautiful in doing so. Look at her in the video for “The Colour of the Earth.” She is clad in black, all black, yet you can’t take your eyes off her; glamorous minimalism. I wonder if those college kids, of both genders, that said ick at that magazine cover so long ago have moved out of that kind of thinking, where beauty is defined by desire rather than truth. The years that followed that magazine cover saw beauty become more of a standard, defined commodity where the content of the clothes became more than the substance of the person. Polly Jean Harvey is a singer of substance, an artist of substance, and a woman of substance. Long may she run.

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  1. […] 2011 on death and loss, albeit from the hands of politicians: PJ Harvey’s Let England Shake. As I wrote in March, while recovering from walking pneumonia, I stumbled upon Mick Harvey’s work with PJ Harvey. […]

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