Mercury Music Prize 2011: PJ Harvey

I did have a blog about Joe Strummer and the Mescaleroes ready to go today, I did. Well, nearly ready. Of course, had it been ready, you’d now be reading that rather than this. Unless you don’t like Joe Strummer and the Mescaleroes. In which case, you’d be a fool.

As it is though, I reckon Polly Jean Harvey’s, history making, second Mercury Music prize award for Let England Shake is probably worth holding back on Strummer and co for. It’s the first time that an artist has won the prize twice and, for me, as PJ has been one of the shining lights of the British musical scene over the last twenty years, it’s fitting that Polly is the one making history. The first win was for 2001’s Stories From The City, Stories From The Sea, an award which she famously couldn’t accept in person as she was stuck in a Washington DC hotel room “watching the Pentagon burn”, what with it being the 11th of September 2001 and all. 

Now, full disclosure here: I have to confess that I’ve only heard two of the other albums on the list, so I can’t say whether Polly’s album deserved it above all others on the list. I can say, though, that much as I love both of the albums by Ghostpoet and Metronomy, Let England Shake is a cut above those efforts. I also find it difficult to believe that anyone could have made a better album than the one that will be stickered up with “2011 Mercury Music Prize Winner” in various record stores this morning.

Although the third post on this blog was dedicated to la Harve’s February show at the Troxy, I haven’t talked much about Let England Shake as an album here. But for me, this furious state of the nation address may well by Polly’s defining statement. I’m a fan of all of her albums, particularly 95’s To Bring You My Love- I always thought that that would be the PJ album that sustained me through the rest of my days. But, no. Despite a slow burning reaction to Let England Shake- my first thought, what the hell is this all about then?- the wit and invention in the music, offsetting the sheer horror conveyed in the lyrics as Polly surveys what is left of this “glorious land” make this her meisterwork.

And, if songs like The Glorious Land, The Words That Maketh Murder, Let England Shake and the astounding On Battleship Hill are not enough to convince you, then consider where we are as a country. Soldiers dying every week in a conflict that seems like it will never end, wars that have been fought predicated on a lie, and the repercussions still being felt from the American reaction to the appalling events of ten years ago. And as if that wasn’t enough… listening to The Glorious Land during the few days that people seemed to take leave of their senses in Tottenham, Hackney and beyond, well, it seems like we had, and have, a song for our times:

“What is the glorious fruit of our land?
Its fruit is deformed children.
What is the glorious fruit of our land?
Its fruit is orphaned children.”

It occurred to me that that last line doesn’t just apply to the kids of murdered mothers and fathers in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere, it applies to the kids of our country who have been failed by their parents, or the system. And then kicked off, big time. Or both. Ghost Town by the Specials is a pretty spectacular song and I’m sure that it would always be recognised as one. But that it went to number one as riots kicked off all around Britain in the summer of 1981 gives the song a certain frisson. According to Terry Hall, it was actually written as a comment on riots in Bristol and Brixton the previous summer. So its sense of time and place is perhaps a little fortunate- or just an indication of how far gone this country was 30 years ago.

Anyway, Let England Shake can compare to Ghost Town in that regard (and, like Ghost Town, The Glorious Land even has a spooky little sound effect), except that it’s a whole album as opposed to one brilliant pop single. I’ve seen criticism of the award already, saying that the judges have tried to cool in giving the award to an “obscure” album, rather than a more crowd pleasing effort. Like Adele’s, say. Since when is how crowd pleasing something is a barometer of how good it is? And I’m not saying that Adele’s album isn’t good, I can’t because I haven’t heard it. But the argument that PJ selling only 70,000 copies means that she is somehow unworthy of this award is flawed. At best. The only argument should be, do the songs on this album merit this award? In my, biased, opinion the answer is unquestionably, yes.

Listen to the deftness of touch on Written On The Forehead, listen to the lyrics of closing track, The Colour Of The Earth and tell me that this is an album that shouldn’t be heard by more people. Wouldn’t it be great if the leaders of our country actually listened to, and took on board, what is being said here? For what it’s worth, and if you’re still here after 850 words, then my opinion must be worth something, I think that this is exactly the kind of record that we needed this year and is a deserving winner of a prize that, as far as I can tell, was never designed to reward popularity anyway. Leave that to the Brit Awards. 

The Glorious Land

The Words that Maketh Murder

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2 Responses to Mercury Music Prize 2011: PJ Harvey

  1. SpursSimon says:

    I am not going to comment on what should have won it as there are 10000s of albums to consider, but I do find it hard to comprehend that 2 of the best albums in the last 10 years are by the same person.
    Can’t see that being possible, even for a fan of a particular artist really?


    • Fair comment. My reply would be that, in my opinion, Roots Manuva’s Run Come Save Me would have been more deserving of the 2001 award. Let England Shake is, in my opinion, a better, more important record than Stories.
      That said, I would have been happy if Ghostpoet had won this year.


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