I wasn't too sold on Joe when Peel played it as an acoustic b-side on the Sheela-Na-Gig single on his 16/2/92 show but beefed up with the full band behind it, then it becomes a different beast entirely. Plants and Rags is the better song out of the two, certainly more sonically interesting with the clashing string parts and discordant duel between the violins. What makes both tracks stand out though is the wide range of interpretations that can be applied to them.
Joe is a guardian angel figure clearly, but I've found myself split on whether he is
1) a truck-stop bodyguard in one of Harvey's Americana settings.
2) Jesus - admittedly this is based on a comment I saw on a message board about the song's meaning which supposed that the singer of the song was Mary Magdelene, on the basis that she would be washing the feet with her hair.
3) A figment of her schizophrenic imagination - although the track drives on at a fair old rate, it is riven with paranoia and a desire for vengeance against enemies both real and imaginary. There's illness trying to make its presence felt through the onslaught with talk of the "headache tree" and how Joe can be the only one to cut her free. But will he liberate her into this world or the next one?
Plants and Rags also seems to be narratively pulling in different directions. At different stages the song seems to come from the standpoint of variously:
1) A recent corpse - "Ease myself into a body bag" and the references to the sun not shining in the white and black shadows.
2) A famine victim - living among useless plants and in her rags, dreaming of the man who gave her fine food and shiny things. Maybe it was him that led her to 1). Either way, he stands as a symbol of a better time and a more promising environment. This is especially pertinent if the narrator is
3) A concentration camp victim - losing your home is one thing, but being led outside quietly afterwards is a chilling image. Is this narrator one of those poor souls who lose everything they have at the whim of another, only to be borne away into the "care" of a heartless state?
Whatever the answer, the track has a tragic grandeur which evokes a sense of a world going to hell and repercussions for one individual. Highly recommended listening.
Videos courtesy of Rik Hofman.