PJ HARVEY | Let England Shake

First Impressions: PJ Harvey’s “Let England Shake”
David D. Robbins Jr. | Their Bated Breath
(Illustration mixes album art, original artwork, photos)

Below are my track-by-track thoughts as I listen to PJ Harvey’s “Let England Shake” for the first time. You can listen to a stream of the album at NPR’s First Listen.

*(Here is a quick impression after I listened to the entire record: This album is about a fallen England, the devastation of war, and the ravages of violent times, all told with an elegiac nostalgia, through images of World War I battles, apocalyptic visions, and countrysides where the only thing that flowers is death. Whew. Okay, there are those folks who say everything PJ does is genius. Then there are others who will trash this record as an artist who can’t get over herself. Truth is, it’s a pretty good record. But don’t think you’re going to hear a return to the guitar thrash out days of “Sheela-Na-Gig” or “50ft-Queenie”. This album and its lead track are a way of saying England is not what it used to be. It’s a proper song to start this record. It’s the clashing of the past and present, literally with two different tracks being played from two different eras. Figuratively, this record shows that England, like many nations, is made of two halves, much like Sinead O’Connor warned before PJ: “The mythical land of Madame George and roses”, is also “the home of police who kill black boys on mopeds.” PJ is one of the most inventive artists today. However, everything she touches doesn’t turn to gold. I still believe “Dry” and Rid of Me” are her best works, and “White Chalk” left me sighing and sleepy — only to be startled by some shrill high-pitched screeches. But that’s what happens when an artist takes risks. I will always respect that. “Let England Shake” is marvelous in parts, like “Hanging In The Wire”, one of the most beautiful songs she’s ever written. It may not be the kind of record that will be remembered as PJ’s best. But it is a cool re-imagining of what music can be and what it can do.)

1. Let England Shake: I saw her sing “Let England Shake” on the BBC’s ‘The Andrew Marr Show” last year and was wondering what exactly I was hearing. It was bizarre, even by PJ’s standards. A looped instrumental sample of “About Istanbul (Not Constantinople)” played in the background as she strummed what sounded like an out-of-tune harp. I didn’t hate it, but I wasn’t ready to call it genius either. The most entertaining part of the video, at the time, was seeing former Prime Minister Gordon Brown (who was also a guest on the show) forced to sit and listen. Oh, lord, what I wouldn’t give to know what was going through his head. The two things I like about this track: First is the deliberate clashing of two songs. Second, the repeated loop, “No you can’t go back to Constantinople,” is clever way of saying what once was can’t ever be again. (7)

2. The Last Living Rose: Now this is genius. PJ’s voice is bathed in an aquatic reverb, recorded sounds, a tambourine, flute sounds like seagulls — heavily layered and prettily orchestrated. “The Last Living Rose” is decidedly more straight-forward than “Let England Shake”. Instrumentally, it is full of brass, drums, and reminiscence about an England long gone: “Goddamned Europeans / Take me back to beautiful England / And the great and filthiness of ages / And battered books / And fog rolling down behind the mountains / On the graveyards and dead sea captains.” My favorite line of the song carries on that theme further, of a nation sold out for a pittance. Well, in truth, sold out for nothing: “Past the Thames / River glistening /Like gold, hastily sold / For nothing! / Nothing!” It’s both criticism and love song. (10)

3. The Glorious Land: This track starts with an organ and a patriotic trumpet fanfare or call before the Ol’ English fox hunt. Then come PJ’s vocals, harmonizing with a male voice, asking, “How is our glorious land bestowed?” It builds into a pretty, jangly Johnny Marr-like guitar riff . The lyrics ask a rhetorical question: “How is our glorious country ploughed? / Not by iron ploughs / Our lands is ploughed by tanks and feet, / Feet marching.” Then PJ sings out the names of ‘America’ and ‘England’. It’s hard not to hear this record and specifically this track and imagine the Iraq War. Two countries marching side-by-side, making phony rallying calls in the background (like the trumpet) to spur on the misplaced patriotism of a nation. It’s a great indictment, that talks of a landscape that may as well serve as metaphor for the human heart. There’s no mincing words here. The song ends with the heavy phrase, “What is the glorious fruit of our land? / Its fruit is orphaned children / What is the glorious fruit of our land? / Its fruit is deformed children. (8)

4. The Words That Maketh Murder: The opening to this song is reminiscent of styles on her 1995 album, “To Bring You My Love”. But it shifts its foundation back to two competing styles and lyrics like that in “Let England Shake”. This is a direct track, about war, sung from the viewpoint of a soldier. The imagery is powerful, “I’ve seen and done things I want to forget / I’ve seen soldiers fall like lumps of meat / Blown and shot out beyond belief / Arms and legs were in the trees.” If I didn’t feel it after track three, this is clearly the point where you realize this record is a concept album or song cycle. I hope people don’t take this record the wrong way. There’s a reason Bob Dylan sang “patriotism is the last refuge to which a scoundrel clings.” Because in times like these, there are people who hear an album like this and call it anti-English or unpatriotic. But when did being critical of one’s country mean that one doesn’t also love it? In fact, that’s part of this record’s message. (10)

5. All And Everyone: Wow, this record is bleak. I’m trying to imagine PJ mustering up the energy to perform these pieces repeatedly on tour: “Death was everywhere / In the air / And in the sounds, / Coming off the mouths …” The drums and guitar strumming begin slowly, then become sped-up to the pace of an advancing march. There are short interludes of brass horns, and languidly drawn-out vocals, and times where PJ sings in short bursts of acapella. The dead are piled high in this track. Death is personified. Blood runs across the land. Bodies are in mounds. The sun is death. The horseman is coming. Bones are rattling like some long lost passage from PJs personal Ecclesiastes. (8)

6. On Battleship Hill: Closer to the vocal style on “White Chalk”. PJ sings in one of the higher pitches I can remember her trying, beginning with a lyric about the cruelty of nature. Literally speaking, Battleship Hill was a spot fought over by the English and Turkey in the early 20th century. There’s a slight reverb to the vocal track, and it begins like some Irish ode to the hills. The raindrop piano against the gruff guitar is beautiful. The song’s chorus is “Cruel nature has won again.” It’s here where I begin to understand that PJ wants to create something meaningful. For her, that means addressing issues. Normally, I don’t like politically overt songs. Not because of the specific political views, but because they often become so literal and boring. But I think she’s created beautiful imagery and marvelous music so far, without being didactic. (7)

7. England: Another track where two songs play with/against each other, depending upon how you look at it: “Remedies, never work / Within my reach / I cannot go on as I am / Withered vine / Reaching from the country that I love / England.” I really like this song too, the mixing of ancient Eastern and modern Western sounds, the frenetic strings, PJ wailing — all falling away with a lo-fi recording of a toy piano. Thinking of England as this rose she wants to pick, but it’s dying on the vine. Really quite beautiful. I feel pretty good at this point, in regard to my pedestrian interpretations, because “England” is the truest cut so far in regard to a person loving their country, and yet feeling profound disappointment. It’s a nostalgic song, about a real patriotism. Perhaps in interviews PJ will distance herself from being the person in the songs, but I hope she does not. (8)

8. In the Dark Places: In this song, a group enters nature (i.e., the woods and forests) and never returns. Cruel nature has won again. Again, this song works on a few levels. But literally you feel like men hunched in the trenches, or hiding out, are ready to jump out, destroy and kill: “Are your men hid with guns, / In the dirt, / In the dark places?” (7)

9. Bitter Branches: Galloping rhythm guitar, heavy-accenting drums. Imagery in this song is brilliant. Men head off to war, raising their rifles high, as womens’ arms wave goodbye to husbands like fluttering bitter branches: “Bitter branches, spreading out … ” It’s a creepy association. But appropriate. Can you think of anything more devastating than watching a loved one leave, who has a high chance of never existing in this world again? It’s such a unique and astute way to look at it a scene of military embarking. It’s this kind of description that makes me realize part of why I like to listen to PJ records. (8)

10. Hanging In the Wire: I fell in love with this track from it’s first piano chords. Simply gorgeous. The melody is beautifully stunning. PJ whispers like the wind, a mythic-tale of a worldly tightrope walker, in the clouds, looking down and seeing a “barren no-man’s land”, an apocalyptic vision of corpses and death where beautiful landscapes should be. This is the genius we all look for in PJ’s music: “There are no trees to sing from / … I cannot hear the wind / Far off the symphony / To hear the guns beginning.” Whew. Lovely. (10)

11. Written On the Forehead: Damn, the last half of this album should have been labeled, “The Apocalyptic Vision”. Try these lyrics on for size: “People throwing dinars at the belly-dancers / In a sad circus by a trench of burning oil / People throw belongings, and lifetime’s earnings / Amongst the scattered rubbish / Throw cases on the sidewalk … / And eyes are cryin’ for everything.” You can hear the background sample, “Let it burn, let it burn”, taken from reggae group Niney the Observer’s “Blood and Fire”. I think of this track as that point we’ll all reach at some time in examining a world gone wrong: Just let it all go up in smoke, it’s going there anyway, isn’t it? (9)

12. The Colour of the Earth: John Parish sings in tandem with PJ, in a sad folk-based ballad. This is the second song about a World War I battle (“On Battleship Hill”) fought as part of the Gallipoli campaign. (Thank god I’m an avid reader of history, eh?) I know this because Parish opens the song with these lines: “Louis was my dearest friend / Fighting in the Anzac trail / Louis ran forward from the line / I never saw him again / Later in the dark / I thought I heard Louis’ voice / Calling for his mother, then me / But I couldn’t get to him.” It’s a track that feels like a traditional myth-song about war and losing friends. The least impressive song on the record. But I do like that she ends the record on a human note, of loss and remembrance. (6)

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