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Music DVD Review: PJ Harvey & Seamus Murphy – Let England Shake: 12 Short Films by Seamus Murphy

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Does anyone remember the short-lived “video-albums” era? Back in the early eighties when MTV was all the rage (and actually played music videos), some of the more adventurous artists made videos for each song on their record. Thus, the VHS (and sometimes Laser Disc) Video LP was born. Devo’s The Men Who Make The Music was supposed to be the first of these, originally set for release in 1979 as the world’s first Video LP, although it was not actually released until 1981. There were a number of others as well, but obviously the format never caught on, and was abandoned.

I mention this because the very idea of such a project seemed to have pretty well died 30 years ago. So it was a pleasant surprise to hear that the always adventurous PJ Harvey had decided to work with photographer Seamus Murphy on such an undertaking. Let England Shake: 12 Short Films by Seamus Murphy is a fascinating document of two extremely talented individuals coming together to produce something quite extraordinary.

Polly Jean Harvey has been actively recording for 20 years now. From the very start, she has been an artist with a singular vision. Her 1992 debut Dry garnered a lot of attention, and no less an artist than Kurt Cobain called it one of his all-time favorite records.

Seamus Murphy is primarily known for his photography. His 2008 book Afghanistan: A Darkness Visible is perhaps his most famous work. In it, his unflinching camera captures some brilliantly haunting images of the war torn land. A Darkness Visible is not “simply” a series of photos of a country ravaged by war though. It tells a story through the camera. We begin with images of a very old land with a very deep history, which has been in many ways undisturbed for centuries. Then his unflinching lens is turned towards the ravages of the war. It is a disturbing, and genuinely powerful book.

For an artist of PJ Harvey’s undeniable creative force, the choice of Seamus Murphy to film “videos” for her songs makes perfect sense. The resulting DVD turned out to be a brilliant combination of music and imagery.

I found the accompanying text by Mr. Murphy to be a wonderful addition to the package. In it, he writes a few paragraphs for each song, and the choices he made to accompany them. It provides a rare insight into the creative process, and although not particularly “necessary” to enjoy the DVD – it does add a very illuminating element to the set.

I found the combination of PJ Harvey and Seamus Murphy on Let England Shake: 12 Short Films by Seamus Murphy to be an unqualified success. Their respective talents compliment each other in ways that are both natural, and often surprising.

Taken together, this is a collection that works fantastically well for both artists, and one which is well worth seeking out.

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