On my recent visit to the UK I talked to several music lovers about the British music scene. One classical pianist I met in London recommended the choral work of British composer Jonathan Harvey and urged me to investigate the excellent website Sound and Music, which covers the contemporary music and sound art scene in the UK.
At the other end of the musical spectrum, the young guitarist Kiran Marvin Pearce kindly gave me a rundown of some of his favorite British indie bands. The Bombay Bicycle Club, Mark Ronson, The Coral, Noah and the Whale, and The Black Ghosts stood out during our musical tour.
I also stumbled across the new band Yuck, a young, London-based garage band whose self-titled debut album is worth a listen. Although the band members were still in diapers during the 90s indie rock explosion, their passion for the music of this era is infectious and owes something to bands like Sonic Youth and Dinosaur Jr.
Despite these great, new musical discoveries, in the end my takeaway album from the UK trip was not by some obscure indie band as I had anticipated, but instead, was the eighth studio album by musical veteran PJ Harvey.
In this age of listening to music on the go and on perpetual “shuffle,” it is uncommon that I come across a record that compels me to stop and pay close attention. But Polly Jean Harvey’s Let England Shake is one of those rare musical gems that has everything going for it–original sounds and textures, poignant lyrics, an overarching theme of war and violence that is never too didactic or heavy-handed, thoughtful pacing, and creative vocalization that utilizes Harvey’s upper range.
Every track on this record stands alone as a solid, inventive work in its own right, but each song also contributes to the project as a whole. There is no musical filler here. The album gets better and better with each listen and deserves to be heard in sequence in its entirety as Harvey intended. It is a very English record, drawing on Harvey’s West Country background, English vernacular songs, and the country’s military history. The Thames and the White Cliffs of Dover both make appearances.
Let England Shake proves that Harvey is capable of reinventing herself and pushing her creative talents to their limits. Not only is it PJ Harvey’s strongest work to date, but it is one of the best albums of the year so far. Its brilliance lies partially in its contradictions. The record opens with the line, “The West’s asleep. Let England shake, weighted down with silent dead. I fear our blood won’t rise again. England’s dancing days are done.” Harvey sets these somber lyrics about war and violence to lively, upbeat melodies that draw inspiration from traditional folk tunes. Her thoughtful, restrained lyrics are punctuated by jaunty autoharp, brass instruments, electric piano, and off-beat samples.
“The Glorious Land” is one of the album’s highlights and is a fine example of the way Harvey is able to create a truly original sound by blending her lilting voice with feverish guitar, drums, and an out-of-time, out-of-tune military bugle sample.
In “The Words That Maketh Murder” Harvey sings from the point of view of a soldier who has witnessed horrible atrocities: “I’ve seen and done things I want to forget; I’ve seen a corporal whose nerves were shot climbing behind the fierce, gone sun, I’ve seen flies swarming everyone….” At the end of the song, Harvey brilliantly turns a line from Eddie Cochran’s “Summertime Blues” into a jaunty refrain: “What if I take my problems to the United Nations?” This is dark comedy at its best.
Although Harvey explores the themes of violence and war, Let England Shake isn’t a protest or message record. Harvey’s lyrics remain skillfully restrained and ambiguous throughout and give the album a timeless quality. She is never overtly political or preachy, but assumes the role of an observant narrator instead. While Harvey references specific battles and wars, she always leaves some space in her lyrics. She could be speaking of the Great War, Afghanistan, or Iraq. The specifics are blurred, and the end result is compelling, atmospheric, and mysterious.
Harvey recently explained her creative approach to the BBC’s Andrew Marr. I’m “always trying to come from the human point of view,” Harvey said, “because I don’t feel qualified to sing from a political standpoint I sing as a human being affected by the politics, and that for me is a more successful way because I so often feel that with a lot of protest music, I’m being preached to, and I dont want that.”
Let England Shake was recorded in a 19th Century church in Dorset on a cliff-top overlooking the sea. Flood, John Parish, and Mick Harvey all make their own musical contributions to the record. Harvey spent over two years writing the lyrics for the album, and her commitment to the project, as well as her own creative evolution shows.
As Harvey explained to Dorian Lynskey in an interview in the Guardian, she sits down to write every single day. “You have to be more disciplined, and you ultimately end up with a much stronger piece of work…If it takes 10 years then I would rather wait and know that I felt each piece was strong than feel that it was time to put something out but five pieces are a bit weak.”
“I wanted to get better,” she told Lynskey. “I wanted to be more coherent, I wanted there to be a greater strength and depth emotionally, and all these things require work – to hone something, to get rid of any superfluous language. I’m inspired by the other great writers I go back to and read again and again, and think how did they do that?”
In the Lynskey interview, Harvey expressed her admiration for writers like T.S. Eliot, Yeats, John Burnside, James Joyce, and Ted Hughes. Harold Pinter’s poems “American Football” or “The Disappeared” were singled out as particular favorites.” All of these writers offer me a greater understanding of what it is to be alive, and that is such an incredible thing art can do for other people…I think as a creative artist it’s crucial to be open – to feel. You can’t do it with a closed heart. You almost have to hand over your soul to that action. And so there can be times when you can feel too full of the piece that you’re making. It’s almost like being a sponge and you just have to absorb everything in order to have all of the goods to make something out of that.”
The daughter of a stonemason and sculptor, Harvey was brought up on a farm in Corscombe, England. She applied to study sculpture at Central Saint Martins College of Art and Design, but her debut single “Dress,” garnered so much attention and acclaim that Harvey decided to pursue music instead. She still sculpts, draws, and paints, however, and the visual arts remain a potent influence on her. “I’m probably much more influenced by film-makers and painters than I am by other songwriters or poets,” she told the Guardian. “With songs I almost see the images, see the action, and then all I have to do is describe it. It’s almost like watching a scene from a film, and that’s what I go about trying to catch in a song.”
Given Harvey’s interest in the visual arts, it is fitting that she chose to work with war photographer Seamus Murphy for this project. The end result of their collaboration is twelve short films, which combine each of the album’s musical tracks with footage that Murphy shot around England. Murphy’s work is a compelling visual companion to Harvey’s music. Each film is a visual poem capturing some element of English life. In several of the films, Harvey’s lyrics are recited as poetry by various English people–a car mechanic, a young girl, an old man sitting in his living room. Not since the filmmaker Jem Cohen’s work with REM, Fugazi, and Vic Chesnutt have I seen such a successful collaboration between a musician and photographer.
Murphy’s films add a new layer of meaning to Harvey’s songs–they expand her music, instead of confining it. Murphy’s photography is a worthy companion, for the overall affect of Let England Shake is one of moving images–graveyards, battlefields, rivers, fog, damp earth, oceans, and twisted roots–evocative everyday scenes that resonate with a country’s collective memory.
This is a poetic and pastoral record, and in many ways, it belongs in the tradition of British literature and painting more than music. Listening to Let England Shake, I’m reminded of the war poetry of Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon, of Thomas Gray’s “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard,” of blurred cemeteries, farms, and churches glimpsed through a train window, of the haunting World War I paintings by the brothers John and Paul Nash. As we inhabit and explore the world of Let England Shake, we catch sight of these images, and then they’re gone. But Harvey’s imagery has a cumulative effect. While the album is filled with snapshots of war, both past and present, Let England Shake is largely a work about place and people–a poignant love letter to England and its troubled, violent history.
These are four of my favorite short films Seamus Murphy made with PJ Harvey. (To see all twelve films go to PJ Harvey’s website.)
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