Monday, 31 October 2011

Let England shake: PJ Harvey at the Royal Albert Hall

Otto Dix, Verwunderte [Wounded Soldier] (1916)

Polly Jean Harvey, currently artist-in-residence at the Imperial War Museum, played a sold-out gig last night at London’s Royal Albert Hall. There was an unmistakable buzz about the venue as the cavernous auditorium filled to capacity amid a roar of excited conversation.

And then the lights dimmed and she was there. Dressed in black, and standing to one side of her small backing band, she briskly played the whole of her prize-winning new album. Although the acoustics of the space are famously muddy her searing anti-war lyrics were clearly audible, the words leaping from the shadows, and providing a poignant contrast with more jingoistic connotations of the venue. Though a response to contemporary wars, PJ Harvey’s latest work draws on the elegiac futility of the First World War as a symbol for all wars, and the shattering and splintering of young lives. “Soldiers fell like lumps of meat,” she sings to the incessant rhythm of “The words that maketh murder”. It is not just the mist-shrouded battlefields, swarming with flies, that Harvey evokes, but also the poisoning of England itself:

Let me walk through the stinking alleys

to the music of drunken beatings,

past the Thames River, glistening like gold

PJ Harvey is an uncompromising artist: critically acclaimed yet meeting with only modest commercial success. She exemplifies a paradoxical outcome of the political economy of music marked by a renewed re-orientation towards live performance: since it is increasingly difficult to make money from selling music, or even control the sequence of tracks on an album, the artist must look towards the live performance not just to sustain their living but also as a means to impose their artistic vision: for Harvey to play her new album in its entirety is a real-time artistic statement of how it should be heard. In the encore, however, she delves into her back catalogue, with mesmerizing renditions of “White Chalk” and “Angeline” that send shivers down the spine.

Sunday, 9 October 2011

City of puke

Making my way to the railway station in Manchester this morning I had to step carefully to avoid puddles of puke, discarded takeaways and other detritus littering the city streets. In the bright sunshine of a Sunday morning it is apparent just how many shops are boarded up or empty just beyond the recently revamped city centre with its glitzy bars offering “after work drinks” and other cheap alcohol promotions. The red-brick buildings allude to a faded industrial grandeur now superseded by a cacophony of consumption. If buildings could speak they might be telling us of better times with a strong local economy making high-quality products sold throughout the world.

In many ways Manchester represents a microcosm of the UK economy over the last fifteen years: a flimsy property-led boom over a declining industrial base. Thirteen years of “New Labour” oversaw Britain’s continuing crisis in manufacturing on the back of the devastation of the Thatcher era of the 1980s with its squandering of North Sea Oil revenue, overvalued Sterling and high interest rates. Skills and capacity left to rot.

So what’s wrong with Britain? The French engineer, economist and green politician Alain Lipietz has suggested that regions and economies face two main strategies in the face of intensifying global competition: “flexibility” or “skill”. We can engage in a race to the bottom in terms of labour flexibilization and the dismantling of public services or throw everything into improving competitiveness by making better products, design innovation, and most critically, investing in the skills and capacities of people. We know the “skill” strategy works in a European context as the hi-tech industrial renaissance of southern Germany or the “Nokia effect” attest. Why have successive UK governments got their industrial strategy — and by extension their economic policy — so disastrously wrong? I suggest it’s a matter of class and power: complacent and incompetent upper middle-class management rooted in networks of privilege; a nefarious neo-colonial banking system that has never shown much interest in manufacturing industry; and spineless cabals of “post-political” politicians, “consultants” and others with their visionless visions for the future. An artificial regionalism such as the hi-tech gulag of Salford Quays and other “creative city” strategies merely masks the underlying dynamics of decline, falling real incomes and rising inequalities.

Drive: a journey through LA

Carson-Dominguez, Los Angeles (2002)

From the opening moments of Drive (2011) we are immersed in a riveting depiction of Los Angeles at night introduced via a dramatic chase scene, as the main character, played by the almost impassive Ryan Gosling, acts as getaway driver for a heist. Pursued by a swarm of police cars he swerves through the city, pausing briefly beneath an elevated expressway as helicopter searchlights scour the landscape.

With Drive, the young Danish film director Nicolas Winding Refn has created a stunning drama that exudes a certain effortlessness in its sparse dialogue and tight narrative structure. The first half of the film in particular builds a sense of extraordinary tension as Gosling’s driver befriends a neighbour (played by Carrie Mulligan) whose husband is about to be released from jail. The gradual descent into terrifying and at times unwatchable violence (for me at least) is reminiscent of Gasper Noe’s Irreversible (2002) in its nihilistic excess.

What strikes me most, however, about Drive is the strange retro feel of Los Angeles itself with its honeycombed structure of parking bays, elevated highways and the sci-fi space of the LA River, which forms the background to a tranquil interlude before the descent into chaos. Notwithstanding the comical excess of the second half of the movie, Drive is destined to be a classic LA film, that pushes the symbolic dominance of the car to a new level of claustrophobia and exhilaration.