It’s a bit strange to find yourself mugged by a record album. At a certain age, that is. Young, it’s normal. But that obsessive, slightly sweaty, adolescent quality that goes along with getting a song stuck in the cerebral cortex in a way that feels like infatuation—that’s unexpected. And yet here I am under the sway of one Polly Jean Harvey and the record she released earlier this year: Let England Shake. My embarrassment doesn’t end there: I’ve been vaguely aware of P.J. for a couple of decades without ever really listening, so not only am I a sudden fan, I’m a late fan. It could hardly get worse. (Though in my own defense, Let England Shake hasn’t made that big a splash in the US market—nothing like Adele. I can’t imagine why.)
Faced with the incomprehensible—on so many levels—I turned to old behavior. Yes, just as I did ‘back in the day’ when I fell in love with a record, I went to Dick Clark’s American Bandstand, the place where teens can let the nation know what they’re thinking about ‘pop’ music. It was good to be back in old Studio B. Dick must have remembered me from way back when, because I was hustled right up on the bandstand, where, preliminaries over, Dick took me through the paces of the old ritual:
Dick: What makes this record special?
Me: Lyrics and beats, Dick!
Dick: Can you dance to it?
Dick: It reminds you of?
Me: Best record since Sgt. Pepper. Or maybe Trout Mask Replica. Anyway, also Early Velvet and Lou Reed of Dirty Blvd.
Dick: [slight puzzlement noted] Ah, great. Best lyric?
Me: So many, Dick. How about: ‘Goddamn Europeans/Take me back to beautiful England/And the gray damp filthiness/Of ages and battered books/And fog rolling down behind mountains/On the graveyards and dead sea captains.’
Dick: [puzzlement increasing] Yeah. Okay. Overall thoughts?
Me: An examination limning the role of violence in producing culture, nationhood, the self in the tradition of Macbeth—a work almost entirely unique in the history of pop culture rich in reference that ranges from Gallipoli and the Great War to Iraq, from Pound to Eddie Cochran.
Dick: [frozen smile, suddenly brightening into something genuine] Time for a commercial break!