The Words That Maketh Murder


It seems rare that an album would inspire the listener to spend time, during the less compelling tracks, idly Googling contextual information about World War I trench warfare and the 1915 Gallipoli campaign, in which thousands upon thousands of men died over a months-long, epically failed invasion of a few square miles of Ottoman peninsula. Rare outside of heavy-metal albums, anyway. But here you have it: Polly Jean Harvey’s latest LP does precisely that, and I fully intend to bore someone, sometime, with every last grim thing I just learned about death, dysentery, great black clouds of flies that never let you sleep, and soldiers breaking their teeth on old biscuits. Try and track down how such an album came to be, and it begins to look like Harvey—an alternately primal and poetic British songwriter—might have spent a few months thinking about the same things as Britain’s actual poet laureate, Carol Ann Duffy. In the spring of 2009, Duffy gave the public a poem called “Last Post,” commemorating the deaths of the nation’s last few surviving World War I veterans, which borrows a few well-known lines from the soldier-poet Wilfred Owen. Around the same time, on the back half of an album she’d made with longtime collaborator John Parish, Harvey was singing about being a soldier, then echoing a line of World War II poetry from W. H. Auden. (“We must love one another or die,” he wrote—though she sings, ominously, “or accept the consequences.”) Duffy went on to ask her peers for more poetry about modern war, in Iraq and Afghanistan. Harvey went on to wonder why, if there could be more than a century’s worth of “war poets,” there mightn’t be a war songwriter.

more from Nitsuh Abebe at New York Magazine here.