From a tale with bloody, murderous rose to a song about even greater tragedy, the 1st World War and much more, the connections with Nick Cave’s song from yesterday run deep. Harvey also sang on Murder Ballads, duetting on Henry Lee in 1996. On top of that, they’d also had a passionate relationship, the breakup of which inspired songs on Cave’s next album The Boatman’s Call. But this song was from an album that is arguably Harvey’s greatest work, 2011’s Let England Shake, its songs flowing with beauty and bloodshed, full of reference to the war of 1914-18, but reverberating into the present. It is laced with irony – “Take me back to beautiful England, And the grey, damp filthiness of ages” – and wonderful images of the Thames as well as so-called past glories – “And battered books and fog rolling down behind the mountains, On the graveyards, and dead sea-captains.”
The entire album has exquisite instrumentation that extends beyond her guitar-based indie roots, with Polly Jean herself adding autoharp and zither, ex-Bad Seed Mick Harvey adding organ among many other instruments, and John Parish including trombone, mellotron and xylophone. This was England, this is England, and its withered English rose. At her 2016 Glastonbury performance, in the immediate aftermath of the Brexit vote, she read out these telling lines from John Donne’s poem, which says it all:
No man is an island,
Entire of itself.
Each is a piece of the continent,
A part of the main.
If a clod be washed away by the sea,
Europe is the less.
As well as if a promontory were.
As well as if a manor of thine own
Or of thine friend's were.
Each man's death diminishes me,
For I am involved in mankind.
Therefore, send not to know
For whom the bell tolls,
It tolls for thee.
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